Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

You know how it goes. Someone’s supposedly interacting with you. But then their phone buzzes.

Suddenly their eyes surreptitiously dart down to their device. Meanwhile, they continue to nod and intermittently meet your gaze. Then their thumb starts to fly across the phone’s surface. Maybe they even apologize to you. “I’m so sorry, I have to quick reply to this text!”

How does it make you feel?  Uncared for? Dismissed? Invisible? Distrustful? Angry? Unmotivated?

If you said “yes” to any (or all) of those things, research shows you’re not alone.

Boss Phubbing

Maybe the term “boss phubbing” is old hat to you, but I only recently learned about it. Boss phubbing happens when I, as an employee, feel that my supervisor is distracted by their smartphone while in my presence.

A recent study of US adults working in various sectors found that when leaders are distracted by their phones, it undermines trust and decreases employee satisfaction—which, in turn, lowers job performance.* Another study showed that employees who perceive their boss as using a phone more often during interactions tend to feel socially excluded, which negatively impacts organization-based self-esteem.**

When we as leaders fall prey to the unrelenting pull of our smartphones, we chip away at trust and belonging in relationships. We undermine confidence and motivation amongst those we lead.

Why? Because phubbing weakens and fragments our thereness. When our brains are halfway in our notifications and halfway in our here-and-now conversation, our energy and attention are uncontained and unpredictable—strewn across the landscape of thought and experience.

We’re “scattered,” quite literally. Neither fully with ourselves nor others, we’re caught in a kind of no man’s land between physical presence and psychological absence.  

Others end up feeling semi abandoned. It’s perhaps akin to what Dr. Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss,” which is much more emotionally stressful than other types of absence or loss.***

How to Stop Phubbing

If you’re often digitally distracted when you’re with other people, and want to stop, here’s what I recommend.

  • Tell three people you trust that you’re resolving to be less distracted by your phone. Invite them to ask you how it’s going.
  • Gradually increase the amount of time you physically leave your phone in your bag, desk drawer, or elsewhere (not on your person).
  • Identify the five people who message you most frequently and let them know you won’t begetting back to them as quickly (and why).
  • Focus less on what you’re not doing (“NO! I am not looking at my phone!”), and more on what you are doing (“YES! I am actively listening to this person or group!”).
  • When you’re talking with someone and are tempted to check your phone, try “grounding down.” This is where you imagine the whole lower half of your body becoming heavy, sturdy, and strong—magnetized down toward the earth. Like an ancient tree with massive roots, or like a crouched sumo wrestler—whomp!!!—you ground yourself down. Breathe. Be still. Feel gravity. Now, out of that sense of groundedness, refocus your attention on the person in front of you.

I will admit that phubbing has negatively impacted some of my relationships. Becoming a bit less digitally distracted is one of the things I’m giving attention to right now.

So I invite you to ask me how it’s going. I’ll be honest with you! And I might just ask you back.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.