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Those darn phones: Are you competing with mobile devices for your board members’ attention?

Those darn phones: Are you competing with mobile devices for your board members’ attention?

May 28, 2024
Howard Cohen

A Dialogue

Paul [chair of a 15-person volunteer board of a not-for-profit organization]: Good afternoon, Harriett. Thanks for taking my call. As you know, our board meeting is next week, and I’m struggling with an issue that is very frustrating to me. I hope we can think it out together.

Harriett [vice-chair of the board]: Hello, Paul. I’m sorry to hear about your frustration, but I’m happy to do what I can to help. Tell me about it.

Paul: I just don’t know what to do about the members’ constant use of their cell phones in our meetings. You’ve seen some of them get a phone call and walk out of the meeting to take it. I won’t mention names, but a couple of them spend meeting time reading and responding to text messages or reading emails or news feeds. For all I know, they may even be playing games.

Almost everyone in the room glances at their phone from time to time. I don’t feel like I have anyone’s undivided attention for any extended time during the meeting. How are we supposed to get careful, thoughtful advice when nobody’s paying attention?

Harriett: I suppose you’ve thought about banning the use of phones in the meeting, Paul. You could ask board members to check their phones with your administrative assistant before they come into the room. Your admin could monitor the phones and inform a committee member if there was truly an emergency call.

Paul: I fear that the board members would deeply resent my treating them in this way. It does seem a little like treating them as if they were middle school kids. Some of them would also refuse to have my admin screen their calls. I’m pretty sure taking away their phones is a non-starter.

Harriett: I can see that. What if we instituted a system of fines for taking out a phone during a meeting? The money could go to support our new program. It could make the point about “no interruptions” in a lighthearted way. 

Paul: Hummm. Interesting idea. But it might have the unintended effect of getting fined a reward, not a punishment.  I worry that if we did this, the board members might turn the tables on me. They might think that getting called out and paying a fine was a small price to pay for supporting our work. They might even start competing to be the most fined, the most generous board member! Then I would be in a box, since I proposed this idea, and I would have to live with the consequences.

Harriett: What if we instituted a “no phones in the meeting” policy. Habitual violators could risk being removed from the committee.

Paul: I really don’t want to go down that road, Harriett. If committee members are treated like this, many of our significant organization supporters may come to feel that they don’t want to be on a committee that operates through threats. Many of these people support the organization financially. Pushing them out for making or taking a phone call would likely result in my being asked to resign from the chair.

Harriett: I’m running out of ideas. Perhaps you could hang a banner in the board room that says: “No Phone Zone” without making a big deal out of it. The board members might get the not-so-subtle hint. Perhaps it will improve meeting behavior without your having to be the bad guy.

Paul: That might help a little, but I’m sure the habitual users will ignore the banner. 

Harriett: Well, Paul, it might be best to put the problem to the board itself at our next meeting and ask them to collectively help you figure out how to address it. If the group comes to a decision, it will have more legitimacy than you simply telling them what you want them to do. You might not be the only one in the room who would prefer that the meetings not be disrupted by calls and texts. That way, it might carry more weight, and it will not seem like this is just you being annoyed.

Paul: That makes sense, Harriett. But what if they dismiss the problem or don’t think it’s a big deal? 

Harriett: Then you will have to live with the group’s decision, Paul. Once you invite them into the decision process, you can’t uninvite them.

While it puts more pressure on you than you already have, you can make our meetings so interesting that the board members won’t want to be on their phones. Keep them engaged each step of the way. Have plenty of opportunities for participation.

Maybe we can create some sub-committees that give everyone a stake in how we govern. That way their work can be part of the reports at every meeting. Of course, I will help you think of ways to keep the meetings lively and engaging. But it might be best if you appointed a sub-committee to make recommendations on cellphone use policy, so the burden does not only fall on you.


These matters are thoroughly and insightfully addressed by Dr. Jeanine Turner in her book, “Being Present: Commanding Attention at Work (and at Home) by Managing Your Social Presence,” published by Georgetown University Press in 2022.

Turner identifies four options communicators have in managing social situations – a board chair conducting a meeting of a volunteer board, for example. 

These are:

  • Budgeted Presence: Make the best of it. Recognize that people in the room have divided presence (you and their devices) and they will determine how to allocate their attention. Hope that they are sharing (budgeting) their attention in a way that includes you.
  • Entitled Presence: The meeting chair is entitled to take control over other people’s communication time by making the rules about meeting behavior. (No phones permitted in the room, speak when you are called on, etc.)
  • Competitive Presence: Compete with others in the room for time and attention. Persuade them to listen to you. Make what you have to say so compelling and so important to them that they will freely choose to listen and participate rather than attend to their devices.
  • Invitational Presence: Invite others to participate in conversation based on rules or principles they agree to accept. Invite them to help design the rules of meeting participation. Try to secure the group’s agreement that devices will be put away during the meeting. 

In our scenario, Harriett comes to recommend Invitational Presence but falls back on Competitive Presence should the committee members reject the self-discipline of putting away their devices.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.