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Ghost Your Phone . . . and Take Back Your Leadership!

By Therese Lenk, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Is your Smart Phone making you a Dumb Leader?

Is Your Smart Phone Making You a Dumb Leader?

Ever tried to ignore your phone when you hear a “ping” or feel a vibration? Smart phones have gone from conveniences to necessities.  Most employees now carry pocket computers or smart phones at all times.  That’s making it much harder than ever to get away from work. It’s also creating new bad habits:  Business managers addicted to texting during meetings and social media have response addiction — all of the trappings of modern existence, and what is it doing to us as people?

Let’s examine the science behind our device addiction and learn 5 key baby steps for becoming a leader that’s less addicted and more conscious.

The Science of Our Addiction to Our Smart Phones

Some managers cannot resist this temptation. Our smartphones are basically mini dopamine factories. Sometimes we know the notification we are getting could be spam, or unimportant. Yet we still check our phone, unable to resist it when we hear a ping or feel a vibration. 

This is because of a chemical in our brain called dopamine. It wants us to feel pleasure and motivates us to pursue actions that are rewarding. Getting “likes” on social media, scrolling through Facebook to shift boredom, and the reward of a notification when responding to an alert, has gradually enslaved us to our dopamine system. 

And apparently, the dopamine system doesn’t go “Oh, I’ve had five notifications today. That’s enough.” It’s actually pretty insatiable, so you engage in more and more pleasure-seeking behavior, checking your phone even when you don’t have a notification and even though you just checked it two minutes ago. 

The more irrelevant notifications you get, the more magnetic your phone becomes because it's like playing a slot machine – you don’t know when you’re going to hit the jackpot with a “good” notification according to Matt Richtel who wrote, A deadly wandering: A tale of tragedy and redemption in the age of attention.(1) Matt tells the story about how we lost two promising scientists and traumatized a young family for life in what would give rise to the first no texting and driving laws.  A good read for adults and teen age drivers.

Ever thought you felt a vibration or heard a ping from your phone, only to check the home screen and… nothing? I have.  It’s called “phantom smartphone buzzing”.  It’s very unsettling yet it woke me up to just how powerful my addiction to my smartphone was.(2) Our phone demands our attention even when we’re not using it or thinking about it.(3) Even if it’s switched off or out of sight.(4)

Before I realized my own addiction, my phone was the first thing I reached for when I woke up in the morning and it was the last thing I touched at night. How about you? I once forgot my phone and left home without it. I was in panic and felt completely helpless for the whole day without it. Who wouldn’t be?  

  • Research finds people touch their smart phones 2,617 times a day(5). A heavy user, taps, swipes or touches it 5,427 times in a day.(6)
  • A study indicates that just being in the presence of a smartphone reduces your cognitive capacity, even if the phone is turned off.  Well that explains the dumb part!
  • The engineer who created the Facebook “Like” button now intentionally restricts his use of Facebook and calls his creation “bright dings of pseudo pleasure.”  He is now concerned about the psychological effects of reaching for our phones so many times a day.(7) As seductive as they may be, they are in fact, hollow.

Think about it: Smartphones help to run our everyday lives.  It allows us to stay in touch with people, and the world around us. But strangely enough, while being allured into all of our new apps, our brains are slowly re-wiring. 

Yup, new neural tracks are being laid.  We are starting to get addicted to our phones, unable to ignore the alerts, vibrations and chimes. We are trained to react as soon as one of these happen, just like “Pavlov’s dogs.” According to Dr. Erik Peper (San Francisco State University Professor of Health Education), smartphone addiction forms neurological connections in our brains similar to how people develop an addiction for pain killers with opioid – gradually.(8) We hear much about opioid addiction but what impact is addiction to our Smartphone having on us and those around us?

It’s not just the social media apps that we are addicted to. It’s the overall smartphone experience. When I’ve had too many glasses of wine and the dinner bill arrives,  I really appreciate my calculator app on my iPhone when calculating the tip! Simple math, remembering phone numbers and dates, sense of direction – we turn to our smartphone for all of that these days.(9) Things that we once actively tried to engage our cognitive skills on. Things our brain is now un-learning. Using your phone to calculate 10% of $100 or pulling out Google Maps before you try to figure out routes on your own may not really sound like a big deal. 

But the truth is, these simple skills are actually part of deeper and more complex cognitive skills such as innovation, creativity and problem solving. Almost 10% of Internet users are so addicted to the big “I” that it has rippled across their family life, marriage, work life and set them all on decline.(10) To add fuel to the fire, many tech and social media companies are researching exactly how your addiction can be their profit. Which means the numbers and potentially, your cognition, could get a lot worse.(11) 


Smartphone use is causing you to lose your focus.(12) To begin with, our brains are not wired to multi-task. They are just switching between tasks quickly. And even though focus is how we absorb information at an in-depth level, our focus is fragile thanks to years of evolution and survival instinct.(13)

A classic example to show how bad our focus is having to do with texting while driving. You can cover the lengths of a football field with no recollection or awareness because you are texting, or you are distracted from the text you just sent.(14) Texting while driving is as bad as drunk driving

The system of notifications has trained you to prioritize the pseudo-urgent over the important. Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang described his experience with UC Berkeley psychologist Megan Jones on switching between tasks as follows.(15) When Megan Jones asked him to count from 0 to 10 as quickly as possible, it took him 1.5 seconds. When she asked him to recite the alphabet from ato j, he did so in 1.5 seconds yet again. Then she asked him to alternate between the two: “one, a, two, b, three, c…” It took him a staggering and fumbling 9.5 seconds. This is exactlywhat it means for your brain when you are working on something, check your notifications, go back to your work, check your notifications again, repeating the pattern for the rest of the day. 

Studies suggest that it takes anywhere from 22 minutes to 2 hoursfor an individual to return to the original task when interrupted by email. It goes without saying that an important quality for a leader is to tune into the problem at hand, solve it and not miss any detail. Now, factor in a phone that’s constantly buzzing. Chaos.


The Antidote

As a leader we can choose “response-ability,” where we are conscious and selective when we respond, rather than simply reacting. Reacting is an automatic behavior like a dog salivating once a cookie treat is visible. When we are giving ourselvesthe ability to respond, we are choosing thoughtfully and consciously our next action, this is called leading with “responsibility.”  

In order to have the ability to respond consciously we must first become the observer of that space between our thought and our impulse which leads to our actions. You become expert at observing your thoughts.  The chance for control is between the thought and the action.

The mostvital skill leaders need, perhaps, is communication. The true mark of emotional intelligence. The ability to motivate and inspire your clients and your co-workers. The ability to make them feel heard and give them individualized experiences when communicating as a leader. But in a smartphone world of emails, text messages and keeping things short and simple, these skills tend to get rusty. Add these with your diminishing abilities to focus, problem solve and innovate. Not the best leadership, right? 

As a leader, your words have a huge impact. Bigger than what you think. Your employees can be motivated and satisfied at work, your current client could choose to cut ties with you and your organization.(16) All by your words and the power they hold. Consider it for a minute. What could be the difference between communicating with robotic, impersonal emails from you and an automated system that troubleshoots problems for you? Inadequate, impersonal words show that you don’t care.(17) And when a leader doesn’t care, why should anyone? 

The good news is you can wean off your smartphone just like any addiction. Here are some tips to help you do just that: 

  1. Use the app SPACE. SPACE features a quiz that diagnoses how you use your phone, how often you are lured in and for what purpose. You set better goals and SPACE tracks how you stick to them.
  2. Use apps that prevent you from using apps. Examples of such apps would be MOMENT and FREEDOM. In MOMENT, you enter the amount of time you want to spend on your phone each day and MOMENT notifies you when you have hit your limit. FREEDOM can be used on your phone and desktop as well, blocking websites or the entire Internet within a set period of time. (Do note that for both MOMENT and FREEDOM, you need to purchase these apps in order to enjoy all the perks).
  3. Be mindful of your phone use. Set up a roadblock between you and your phone by tying a rubber band around it so that you are mindful whenever you are about to use your phone. Use features such as Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving so that you can send automated replies, instead of being distracted from the task at hand. 
  4. Get extreme. Take the biggest possible step you could by deleting your most addictive apps such as Instagram. Use the website version of these apps instead if you really have to as you may be less likely to linger and use it for prolonged periods of time. 

At the end of the day, you don’t have to completely put away your phone and have your ears to the ground 24/7. Just be mindful of your smartphone habits.(18)

  1. At the beginning of a meeting, you can have everyone shut their phones off and/or put their smartphones in a basket. 
  2. Avoid being this person: A leader who is on his phone sending out emails during a meeting or pulling a “Hold on, I have to take this call” gives the impression of an absent leader and an unvalued employee. 
  3. As the leader, you can regulate keeping phones out of meetings, so everyone feels heard. 
  4. You can practice meditation to build back your focus.(19)
  5. The next time you reach for your smartphone, take a second to consider if it’s something that you can do without. 
  6. Should that “keep up the good work” really be an email? Or a minute of your day to tell the employee in-person, allowing that personal human touch? 


Social media and smartphones can be a great way for you to rise as a truly great leader in your organization. You can use them to show gratitude, post thought-provoking content, share inspiring stories, show yourself as a grounded leader and exercise effective internal communication. Examples of all the qualities that define a conscious leader who is open, transparent yet still personally engaged. 


  1. Matt Richtel. (Writer). (2015, January 5). A deadly wandering: A tale of tragedy and redemption in the age of attention by Matt Richtel. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from
  2. Bill Davidow. “Exploiting the neuroscience of internet addiction.” The Atlantic. July 18, 2012. 
  3. Robinson Meyer. “Your smartphone reduces your brainpower, even if it's just sitting there.” The Atlantic. August 2, 2017
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Michael Winnick. “Putting a finger on our phone obsession.” Dscout. June 16, 2016. 
  6. Ibid.
  7. Paul Lewis. “'Our minds can be hijacked': The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.” The Guardian. October 6, 2017. 
  8.  “Digital addiction increases loneliness, anxiety and depression.” Neuroscience News. April 11, 2018. 
  9.  “Smartphones may be ruining our brains. What should business leaders do?” Talent Economy. October 13, 2017. 
  10. Bill Davidow. “Exploiting the neuroscience of internet addiction.” The Atlantic. July 18, 2012.
  11. Daniel Goleman. “Your smartphone is stealing your leadership skills.” Korn Ferry Institute. November 28, 2017. 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Matt Richtel. (Writer). (2015, January 5). A deadly wandering: A tale of tragedy and redemption in the age of attention by Matt Richtel. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from
  14. Ibid.
  15. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. (2013). The distraction addiction: Getting the information you need and the communication you want, without enraging your family, annoying your colleagues, and destroying your soul. Retrieved from
  16. Liz Elting. “Why leaders must use social media responsibly.” Forbes. November 30, 2017.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Emma Sexton. “The phone hack: how to cure your technology addiction yet stay in touch.” The Guardian. January 28, 2015.
  19. Daniel Goleman. “Your smartphone is stealing your leadership skills.” Korn Ferry Institute.

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