8 Things Leaders Can Do to Cut Out “Noise” at Work (and Why We Must)

Excerpt from “NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus” by Joe McCormack (Wiley, December 2019).

Remember when we thought “more” was better? In a more innocent time, leaders really believed the more information people had, the smarter they’d be, the better decisions they’d make, and the greater success they’d have. Now we know how wrong we were: Nonstop e-mails, endless meetings, and 24-7 connectedness are crippling employees’ ability to think, focus, solve problems, and do the deep work a company needs to stay competitive. And here’s the real question: What are we going to do about it?

Too often, the answer is “nothing.” Too many companies let “noise” squander our most valuable resource: our employees’ time and attention.

It’s ironic that we’ll go to great lengths to protect our intellectual property and physical property, but don’t think twice about allowing a deluge of digital disruptions erode our employees’ ability to perform. Employees are so distracted and inundated with so much empty information they don’t know what to focus on—or even how to focus.

This is a problem for many reasons. When people can’t focus, performance suffers. There’s less of a sense of accomplishment because it’s hard to get things done. All this cuts into employee engagement and work fulfillment. It’s impossible to create the kind of culture that attracts and retains good talent.

I want leaders to stop accepting the status quo and start protecting workers’ minds from noise. We can and must get conscious and intentional about the type and amount of information we’re letting into our workspaces and on our desktops.

It’s not that I am anti-tech. Not at all. But most businesses are using tech in a way that impedes good work instead of enabling it. Right now, we’re taking an incredible high-end, intricate tool and using it to bludgeon our minds and our lives. We obviously can’t disconnect from technology, and we shouldn’t. But we do need to be more discerning about what we allow in.

Here are eight simple and practical changes to break the noise cycle and help your leaders and employees regain their focus:

1. Get clear on why noise is a problem. Noise hurts our attention span, impacts our brain and working memory, and eventually causes us to stop caring and listening. For example, consider the interruptions (digital and otherwise) that break your employees’ concentration multiple times a day. Now consider that it takes 25 minutes to get back into the swing of things when you’ve been interrupted. Now multiply this by every person on your team. That’s a lot of time and money lost. Businesses that help their people mitigate constant disruption—in its many forms—will have a leg up on the competition.

2. Make sure everyone is aware of the issue. Narrate the consequences of unchecked noise, not just to leaders but to everyone in your company. This is job one. Once people are consciously aware of what noise looks like (and—obviously—sounds like), they’ll get more intentional about minimizing it. Just calling it “noise” goes a long way toward helping people see it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. By naming, framing, and claiming it, we make it real.

3. Turn off the firehose of information (or vastly reduce the output). Leaders, in the name of transparency, may bury their teams in excessive information. When there’s a steady stream of e-mail blasts, town hall meetings, social media posts, video tutorials, and cascading messages, employees get confused, frustrated, and finally they tune out. While you can and should keep employees informed, don’t force them to consume so much information that they can’t decipher the message.

4. Get brief in your communication. When trying to inform, explain, update, and convince, simplicity goes a long way. Focus on being lean, clear, and concise, whether you’re speaking or writing. Ask yourself: What is the single most important thing I want to convey in this conversation or communication? Then, tailor that e-mail, voicemail, phone call, or presentation accordingly.

5. Help employees grasp the concept of single-minded focus. Juggling too many balls at work is awkward and counterproductive, and constant distractions can be so irresistible that people end up saying, “Yes,” to everything. Make single-minded focus one of your company’s core concepts. Allow your people to concentrate on one task at a time.

A good trick to teach them: Write one task on a Post-it note and throw it out once you’re done. Check the trash can for all the little things you accomplished by doing one thing at a time.

6. Commit to running better meetings. On average, business professionals spend 23 hours a week in meetings. Unfortunately for everyone involved, few meetings are run well, with a stated purpose and a defined agenda. They’re often painful and unproductive.

First, be mindful of the number of meetings going on. Ask yourself if you really need to hold a meeting in the first place. When a meeting is justifiable, invite only those who are essential to attend. Set your objectives for the meeting ahead of time and state them at the beginning of the meeting. Get people involved and ask questions so you can get the feedback of the people in the room. Finally, use your time wisely so you won’t lose people’s attention.

7. Design your office space around quiet and focus. If you’ve ever worked in a building with few to no offices, at first, it seems so inviting, creative, and collaborative. Yet, the day-to-day reality is that these environments breed distraction and literal noise, and people have to fight to stay focused and do their work.

In general, open floor plans are a bad idea for anyone who needs to focus for their job. Even if it’s just cubicles, it’s better for employees to have walls for privacy and noise buffers. Make sure there are dedicated quiet rooms where people can go for interruption-free focus. Also be sure to provide several Wi-Fi cold spots where there are no tech distractions.

8. Give people permission to “unplug” without consequences. Foster a culture of patience that allows people to disconnect from their e-mails and work phones for periods of uninterrupted work and focus, even if it means they will return calls and answer e-mails at a slower pace. This helps your employees develop psychological safety, which empowers them to give their best work without fear of reprisals. And don’t expect people to be reachable by phone or e-mail 24-7. While there are always exceptions, don’t make it the norm for employees to be connected on nights and weekends. People need downtime to recharge.

Once you understand how deeply noise can impact your business, you can change the environment and enable everyone to do meaningful work. Imagine what potential this unleashes. A united front of leaders and employees concentrating 100 percent on what really matters is a force to be reckoned with.

Excerpt from “NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus” by Joseph McCormack (Wiley, December 2019). To learn more, visit www.noisethebook.com.

Joseph McCormack is the author of “NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus.” He is passionate about helping people gain clarity when there is so much com­peting for our attention. He is a success­ful marketer, entrepreneur, and author. His first book, “BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less” (Wiley, 2014), sets the standard for concise communication. McCormack is the founder and managing director of The BRIEF Lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly. His clients include Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Microsoft, Mastercard, DuPont, and select military units and government agencies. He publishes a weekly podcast called “Just Saying” that helps people master the elusive skills of focus and brevity.

Wiley, a global research and learning company, helps people and organizations develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Its online scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly journals, combined with its digital learning, assessment, and certification solutions help universities, learned societies, businesses, governments, and individuals increase the academic and professional impact of their work. For more information visit: www.wiley.com.

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