Reducing Information Pollution

Doing email in meetings: an ancient cautionary tale

February 15, 2018 | Posted By Nathan Zeldes

We can learn a lot from history… even in the field of Information Overload and Meeting Culture.

Consider this true story, quoted as is from Plutarch, about a spicy event in the senate of ancient Rome:

It is said also that when the great conspiracy of Catiline, which came near overthrowing the city, had come to the ears of the senate, Cato and Caesar, who were of different opinions about the matter, were standing side by side, and just then a little note was handed to Caesar from outside, which he read quietly. But Cato cried out that Caesar was outrageously receiving letters of instruction from the enemy. At this, a great tumult arose, and Caesar gave the missive, just as it was, to Cato. Cato found, when he read it, that it was a wanton bit of writing from his sister Servilia, and throwing it to Caesar with the words “Take it, thou sot,” turned again to the business under discussion. So notorious was Servilia’s passion for Caesar.

Let’s recast this in modern terms: two senior leaders are engaged in an important discussion in parliament, the legendary Julius Caesar and his enemy Cato (the younger). Caesar is distracted by an incoming message, and tries to process it while engaging in the meeting – tries, in fact , to Multitask. This not only interferes with his concentration; it leads to a disruption of the entire meeting – and to a rather comical if embarrassing outcome when the message turns out to be a love letter from his mistress. That the mistress was Cato’s sister Servilia (the mother of Brutus) just makes it more hilarious.

The lesson is far from funny, though: in meetings across the planet today attendees sit with a glassy stare fixed on their notebook or smartphone screens, and the impact on the meeting’s effectiveness is extremely harmful. Take note!

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