The time has come for us to address one of the biggest technology issues of the day: Is leaving a voicemail a waste of time?

More often than not, when I leave a voicemail message for someone, it is never listened to.

Instead the person calls me back (thankfully!) and says the same simple words, “I saw you called. What’s up?”

Frustrated me wants to say, “What’s up is that I left you a message and you should have listened to it before you called me back.”

Eliminating the Middle Step

But over the last few months, I have done the same thing to people who have left me voicemail messages. I just checked my iPhone. I have 11 voicemails that I haven’t listened to over the last month, and in all but one case – sorry, telephone solicitor – I have returned the calls without listening to the message.

My actions aren’t unique. I see and hear people do it all the time.

Here’s the thing: It’s just easier or quicker to call the person back since most of the time the next action after listening to a voicemail is that you are going to call the person back anyway. Just eliminate the middle step: the voicemail.

Technology’s Effect

Part of me wants to suggest that this trend highlights a growing need for us to connect with real, living, breathing, speaking human beings because we spend too much time staring at computer and cellphone screens, or typing messages.

Of course, the technological advancement that enables us not to listen to voicemails is the capturing of the incoming caller’s telephone number on iPhones and Droids regardless of whether you answer or not. So if you have called someone’s cellphone, they have your number and when you called.

Some corporate phone lines, especially VOIP lines, do the same thing – although my experience is that it’s not the norm yet.

From the perspective of business efficiency (imagine voicing 50 or 100 voicemail messages in a day), leaving voicemail messages seems like an inefficient, outdated practice.

By abandoning voicemail, we save time when we are making or receiving calls from people. No need to do something that no one will ever use. Right?

Different Rules for Email

Before we create a new rule, let’s look at this situation another way. What if the communication occurred over email? Who would reply to someone’s email without reading it first? No one.

By that logic then, we should listen to the voicemails before we return the call. Probably.

Still I doubt that people are going to go backward. One of the great lessons of technology is that once you move forward, there’s rarely a chance we go back to our old ways. Who’s still using an 8-track player, a Gameboy or an iPod regularly?

The real problem is that we can’t anticipate whether someone is a voicemail listener or a disregarder. If we get it wrong, we jeopardize the very communication we sought to establish by placing the call in the first place.

Potential Missed Opportunities

That’s the problem. I’d like to stop leaving voicemail messages, but I fear I might miss an opportunity.

For the time being, I guess I have to keep leaving them, knowing the vast majority of the people I am leaving for them will never listen to them.

How are you handling this situation?

People who appear to hold a strong ethical line gain more trust and respect than those who have less clear ethical boundaries. For this reason alone, maintaining strong personal ethics becomes a key to successfully working with others.

People who cannot determine the difference between good and evil or right and wrong human actions are not the people we gravitate toward. Those people can be unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. On some level we know it and tend to instinctively steer away from them as much as possible. Imagine the effect of this steering away in a team environment.

In concept and discussion, ethics seem black and white. The list of things we will and won’t do is easy to create in the abstract. In reality, the difference between black and white is colored with a great deal of gray.

Further complicating these ethically challenging situations is how no signpost alert us to when we are about to cross the line. It’s not like the Mason-Dixon Line, which seems to be clearly noted on practically every north-south route between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As a journalist, I can remember pontificating in college classes on the “obvious” ethical choice in a series of complex journalism situations. Information can’t be verified (don’t use it). Lying about who you are or what you are writing about to get access to information or people (don’t do it). Paying for information (don’t do it).

Those situations arose in my career as a reporter, editor and executive editor more than I would have imagined. Other ethical lines that seemed easy to cross because they became less clear involved using anonymous sources in important stories where no other options existed and allowing advertisers to have a greater say in our coverage decisions than best practices might suggest.

In the real world, too many times we made ethical decisions on the fly, unaware that we even were right up against the ethical line or crossing it until it was too late.

Once you cross the line, it’s hard to walk things back (a beautiful political phrase that says exactly what we want to do but struggle to accomplish).

If a line clearly defines good versus evil, then once you cross it, you can never restore your good. Right?

The drivers pushing us toward that line may be the powerful appeal of a promotion, a new opportunity or a bigger role in decision-making, not to mention a bigger paycheck. These reasons are often cited when someone moves a personal ethical line closer to evil.

For me, more often than not, I didn’t even see the line I was close to crossing. It seemed to happen long before I realize what was happening.

Once alerted to the situation, I experienced something akin to buyer’s remorse. You know the feeling: You bought that two-for-one thing that shows up on TV for $19.99 every time you stay up late. It looks cool. It’s just $19.99, plus separate shipping for each. Who wouldn’t do it? You do it and when it arrives, you immediately see the bad decision you made.

Crossing an ethical line, wide or narrow, feels the same way, but the repercussion can far exceed the hit to your checking account for that cool late-night offer.

The only answer after bad decisions on both an ethical dilemma and a foolish online purchase is to attempt to recalibrate. These questions can offer some guidance.

  • What was the ethical line you crossed?
  • Did you cross it, or was your prior understanding of the line faulty? (It happens.)
  • What was the first and subsequent actions that led to crossing the line?
  • If you didn’t see it coming, what are the signposts you can erect to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

Determining where and when the ethics actually became compromised can help to ensure that if the situation arises again (it rarely does), we might make a different choice.

No wonder we assign so much trust and respect to the people who seem to avoid stepping over the ethical line. My guess is that at our core, we wonder how they do it and we hope it rubs off on us.

Want more on ethical decisions? Listen to Episode 49 of our Serious Soft Skills Podcast, which explores in more detail the ethical implications of decisions.

Communicating with people who are not in the same location as you for a meeting is complicated. As more meetings occur with people working from home and in remote offices, ensuring that online meetings and conference calls remain effective takes on new importance.

These challenges came up after I spoke to a group about how a speaker can take charge of the room, how to establish and keep focus, methods for assessing your audience’s understanding and interest, and other keys to effective communication. Afterward, an attendees asked if I had any tips for when attendees aren’t in the room where the meeting is taking place.

The issue is that so many of the cues we use to guide whether our thoughts and ideas are reaching the audience disappear when we cannot easily or interact closely with others in the audience.

Altering the Feedback Loop

(In the case of this meeting, two people listened to my presentation online. And in retrospect, I didn’t engage them at all, nor did the team-building activity we did in the conference room work well for them because they could not participate. Had I known in advance of the remote participants, I would have changed the activity up. Now I know to ask in advance.)

The big question is how do you overcome the fact that you cannot use eye contact or body language as clues for someone’s interest or engagement?

You have to shift your approach. Rather than using your eyes, you have to use your mouth and ears more. Instead of seeing if your words are landing as you hoped, you have to solicit from the remote attendees whether they are landing. Moreover, you have to listen to what they say in response to inquiries, as well as what they may not say.

Tips for Remote Attendee Feedback

Here are some hints for getting the same information as eye contact and body language offer when one or more people is outside the room:

1.    Ask along the way if the people online are following and if they hear. Invite them to speak up if they get lost or if people are talking over one another.

2.    Have someone coordinate with remote attendees. The group I spoke to assigned a member to monitor written messages from remote attendees.

3.    Specifically and strategically invite feedback from out-of-the-room attendees.“John, do you have any thoughts on the topic?” or even “Anything to add, John?” Not only will this ensure they can contribute, but it will keep them on notice that they could be called at any time.

4.    Go slower. People who are not in the room are not going to get the hand movements and other gestures and facial expressions you use so their ability to process the information you are sharing may be slower. Slow down to give them time to process.

5.    Tailor presentations to the realities. People who are out of the room cannot be in small groups so those types of activities are best left out. Nor can they easily see slides that are presented so provide them with the slide deck in advance.

6.    Ask for takeaways. One way to ensure that everyone is engaged is to tell them at the beginning that near the end, you plan to ask everyone for one takeaway from the presentation.

This old teacher’s trick works to keep everyone engaged because they now realize they have to say something intelligent about the presentation. They will listen more intently because they know they have to share. No one wants to fail at this test or say something wrong or silly.

Dealing with an audience that’s in more than one location is an acquired skills. But as more people work remotely, the demand on being an effective communicator in spite of this challenge will only increase.

People think that being a good multi-tasker, something research says is impossible, means you are able to manage multiple projects. Most employees need to be able to manage different projects at the same time, meeting deadlines and working with others, to be effective.

Among the many topics Cohosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham cover in this important episode on an often-overlooked soft skill are:

  • Differences between multi-tasking and managing multiple projects
  • Why we seem to believe multi-tasking works
  • Technology’s role in this soft skill
  • Are we using our time more effectively?
  • How to get ahead of multiple projects
  • What to do when things are not being well managed
  • Why looking at the Big Picture too much hurts being able to manage multiple projects.
  • A real example of managing a project to ensure it can be managed with other projects
  • How computers switch better than humans
  • Blocking out your day to ensure projects are managed well
  • More tips for ensuring you can juggle multiple projects
  • The other soft skills incorporated into managing multiple projects
  • Addressing the fact that things may go wrong once in a while

Next week

We will be looking at the role of storytelling. While not a soft skill, storytelling plays a huge role in being effective in a job search and in being successful in work situations.

Our latest Serious Soft Skills Podcast looks at how paying attention to details can help an individual, the team and the organization. But unfortunately, most of us struggle with this important soft skill. Learn why it matters and how to do it better in this episode of Serious Soft Skills.


Cohosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham explore the many important benefits of paying attention to details.

Among the topics they cover:

  • Who benefits from our attention to detail
  • What happens when we don’t pay attention to details
  • How to pay attention to details more effectively
  • Eight hints for better paying attention to details

Next week

The Serious Soft Skills Podcast will explain how complying with standards makes the soft skills list.