When supervisors focus on their phones in meetings instead of their employees, trust is eroded.

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It has probably happened to you: You are in a meeting, but your boss is totally distracted by his or her phone — drawn away by the latest ping of an email or text message, or scrolling a news feed.

The phenomenon is called boss “phubbing,” which is when a supervisor snubs an employee in favor of his mobile phone when they are meeting. And researchers James Roberts and Meredith David, professors of marketing at Baylor University, have found that this behavior undermines trust and engagement in the workplace.

“The supervisor-employee relationship is really like a marriage — they have to work together and they have a common goal in mind,” says Roberts. “If [phubbing] is bad in a romantic relationship, I can’t believe it can have anything but negative consequences in the workplace.”

In their study titled “Put Down Your Phone and Listen to Me: How boss phubbing undermines the psychological conditions necessary for employee engagement,” Roberts and Meredith found that “behavior as simple as using a cell phone in the workplace can ultimately undermine an employee’s success.”

“Our results reveal that cell phone use by supervisors while in the presence of their employees negatively affects employee engagement,” they wrote.

Their research, made up of three studies, drew on survey responses from 413 supervisors and employees. The participants were asked to respond to statements that measured degrees of boss phubbing, such as “My boss places his or her cell phone where I can see it when we are together,” “When my boss’ cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation,”and “I can rely on my supervisor to keep the promises he/she makes.”

The researchers found that boss phubbing negatively impacts employees’ trust in their supervisor, which in turn negatively affects the employee’s feeling that their work is meaningful, that they have the necessary resources to do their job, and that they are in a safe working environment. All this in turn leads to decreased employee engagement and productivity.

Employees who experience boss phubbing, they wrote, “are less likely to feel that their work is valuable or conducive to their own professional growth.” In addition, “employees who work under the supervision of an untrusted, phubbing supervisor tend to have lower confidence in their own ability to carry out their job, which negatively impacts engagement.”

Ubiquity intensifies problem

The distracted supervisor is not a new development, of course. Even without a smartphone, bosses can snub their employees by not giving them their full attention, whether that’s twirling a pen or leafing through other documents. But cell phones, because they are so ubiquitous, exacerbate the snubbing dynamic, says Roberts.

“It is different, but it is also intensifying,” he says of smartphones. “By being so salient, it grabs our attention. It’s almost automatic attention.”

But could boss phubbing be a calculated power move on the supervisor’s part, a signal to the employee that he or she is indispensably important? While that tactic may have worked in the past, Roberts says, it is unlikely that it will be effective today.

“Particularly for young workers, millennials, that’s just not going to cut it,” he says, explaining how cell phones are so ubiquitous now that they do not necessarily convey the same prestige or authority that they may have before.
For both bosses and employees, this study has important implications for workplace culture, says Roberts.

“Phubbing is harmful behavior, and regardless of whether the phubbing occurs when eating with others or in a meeting with others, it undermines any corporate culture based on respect for others,” the researchers wrote. “. . .Thus, it is crucial that corporations strive to create a corporate culture embodied by care for one another.”

How to stop “phubbing”

Specifically, Roberts recommended that bosses and employees be trained in sensitivity, so that everyone recognizes the negative impact of phubbing on workplace relationships. He also suggested that supervisors be evaluated not just on quantitative measures like sales numbers, but also whether employees trust or respect them. And if all else fails, companies should consider setting formal “smartphone policies” on when and where phones can be used in the workplace.