Anthony Hilton: Reading a room is now a dying art

One of the UK's most successful businessmen told me he has banned BlackBerrys - in fact smartphones of all descriptions - from his meetings, because he is fed up with people reading emails when they should be taking part in the meeting. His next step is to ban the use of email.

Anthony Hilton: reading a room is now a dying art
Anthony Hilton: reading a room is now a dying art

On BlackBerrys he is surely on firm ground. He claims in his 40 years in business, he can recall only a handful of things so important that finding out immediately rather than in half an hour made a difference.

Of course some people have an elevated idea of what is important. He did tolerate a companion's BlackBerry when he was having lunch with a member of the Downing Street inner circle during the banking crisis and his guest was waiting to hear whether a high street bank had enough overnight money to open its doors the following day.

Many people would agree that the constant checking of BlackBerrys verges on a compulsive disorder and those afflicted by it need to go into some kind of powered-down rehab. But interestingly it is his point about emails that is the more important.

What worries him is that people on the same floor now communicate almost entirely by email, so there is almost no personal interaction between colleagues or between managers and those in the reporting line. His point is that management is about understanding people and getting them to react in the way you want. When a manager no longer sticks his or her head round the door of the adjacent office, he or she has no opportunity to get a sense of the body language, the expression, the tone of voice, the hesitations through which to assess the reactions of colleagues. Without such interaction management becomes detached.

It also becomes less effective. An old friend in a PR consultancy said that these days their graduate intake needs lessons in how to read a room - to assess at a client meeting who has the power, who will talk a lot but can be ignored, who is saying yes but thinking no.

Before email, such awareness was part of life's basic survival skills. Now it has to be taught.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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