Squirrel! by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by dharder. Available at morguefule.com.

One of my favorite films is Pixar’s “UP”. It is the story of the accidental pairing of curmudgeon Carl Fredrickson and 8-year old Russell who go on a fantastical adventure to South America in pursuit of their dreams and love. Being a Pixar film, there is an ample supply of comedy, in this case often from the character Dug, the talking dog. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recall that one of the best gags in the film is how Dug and the other dogs are distracted at inopportune points by a squirrel, calling out, “Squirrel!”

In our family, we sometimes call out “Squirrel!” when someone is distracted from whatever is important at the moment. A recent example occurred while sitting at breakfast with my wife on vacation in Hawaii. We were engaged in a casual but deep discussion about election politics and changing American culture. I picked up my smartphone to look up a pertinent fact. However, I was distracted by a news feed on my phone that told me of the surprising victory of the Minnesota Vikings over the San Francisco 49ers. I said, “Wow! The Vikings beat the 49ers!” Julie gave me a disgusted look and said “Squirrel!”

We laughed, but she was right. I had gotten off track (significantly) and in the process disrespected her and our time together. This exchange reminded me of a recent study finding that the mere presence of a cell phone (not using it, just the presence!) “can be detrimental to our attempts at interpersonal connection.”1 The researchers found that the presence of the cell phone actually decreased the perceived quality of the relationship and the absence of a phone increased the perceived quality of the relationship! That’s a rather amazing finding and, if the findings are supported by follow up studies, is rather profound given our society’s love affair with the smart phone.

Perhaps it isn’t so smart after all.

So what’s the point for leaders? First, we all have our accidental “Squirrel!” moments and we need to be on the lookout for those. Be fully engaged with whomever you are conversing. Invest your mental and emotional being into that person for that time and BE THERE. If there is something that tends to create “Squirrel!” moments for you, figure out how to get rid of it or at least limit the impact (turn your phone off and put it in your desk drawer).

Second, this study about the impact of cell phones on perceived relationship quality is challenging. It challenges me to consider, aside from my phone, what else distracts me from connecting with family and coworkers. What habits, perceptions, and values prevent me from understanding others and truly communicating. Habits: Yes, I’ve noticed I have a tendency to pick up my phone to see if I have any new messages. Bad habit! Perceptions: I also have a tendency to “pre-assess” others’ ability to contribute to a situation based on things that have nothing to do with their thinking and problem solving skills. Bad perception! Values: Let’s be honest—we all have a tendency to value our own interests and goals above others. Bad value!

I have a challenge for you. The next time you have a one-on-one meeting with someone, plan ahead to remove distractions and to fully engage that person. When the meeting is done, ask, “How do you feel about how this conversation went?” Listen to their response. Don’t tell them what you did to prepare. Just listen and learn. Then try it again. You’ll be glad you did.

1: Helen Lee Lin, “How Your Cell Phone Hurts Your Relationships,” Scientific American, September 4, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-your-cell-phone-hurts-your-relationships

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