Leadership Matters: Cut Out ‘Noise’ at Work

stressed young businesswoman covers her ears in busy office
By Joe McCormack

6 minutes

Here are eight things leaders can do to reduce distraction and information overload—and why they must.

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 emails, endless meetings and 24/7 connectedness cripple employees’ ability to think, solve problems and do the deep work a business needs to stay competitive. So here’s the real question: What are we going to do about it?

Too often, the answer is “nothing.” Too many organizations let what I call “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 assets but don’t think twice about allowing a deluge of digital disruptions erode our employees’ ability to perform. Employees are so distracted on a constant basis that 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. This cuts into employee engagement and fulfillment at work. It’s impossible to create the kind of culture that attracts and retains good talent.

Leaders need to start protecting employees’ minds from noise. Get intentional about the type and amount of information you’re letting into your workspaces and onto your desktops. We obviously can’t disconnect from technology, and we shouldn’t. But we do need to be more discerning about how we interact with it.

Read on for some simple and practical changes to break the noise cycle and help your fellow leaders and employees regain their focus.

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. Consider that it takes about 25 minutes to get back into the swing of things when you’ve been interrupted, according to a study by the University of California Irvine. 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.

Make sure everyone is aware of the issue.

Narrate the consequences of unchecked noise, not just to leaders but to everyone in your credit union. Once people are consciously aware of what noise looks like (and sounds like), they’ll get more intentional about minimizing it.

Just calling it “noise” can go a long way toward helping people see that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. By naming, framing and claiming it, we make it real.

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 email blasts, town hall meetings, social media posts and video tutorials on new tools or processes, employees get confused and frustrated—and eventually, they tune out.

While you can and should keep employees informed, don’t force them to consume so much information that they can’t easily distinguish the important stuff from the rest. Think about the recipient list on that email or meeting request before you hit send.

Get brief in your communication.

When trying to inform, explain or convince, simplicity goes a long way. Focus on being 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 email, voicemail, phone call or presentation accordingly.

Help employees grasp the concept of single-minded focus.

Juggling too many balls at work is awkward and counterproductive. The constant distractions can be so irresistible that people end up saying “yes” to everything. Make single-minded focus one of your organization’s core concepts. Allow your people to concentrate on one task at a time.

Here’s a good trick to help with focus: Write one task on a sticky 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.

Commit to running better meetings.

Business professionals spend an average of 23 hours a week in meetings, according to research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. 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 you need, and use your time wisely so you won’t lose people’s attention.

Design your office space around quiet and focus.

If you’ve ever worked in a building with few to no offices, you may have at first thought the space seemed inviting, creative and collaborative. Yet, the 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 people can reserve for interruption-free phone calls or quiet work time. Also consider providing Wi-Fi “cold spots” where there are no tech distractions.

Give people permission to ‘unplug’ without consequences.

Foster a culture of patience that allows people to disconnect from their emails and work phones for periods of uninterrupted work, even if it means they will respond at a slower pace. This helps your employees develop a sense of psychological safety, which empowers them to give their best work without fear of reprisal.

By the way, leaders: Don’t expect people to be reachable by phone or email 24/7. While there are certainly special 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% on what really matters is a force to be reckoned with.

Joseph McCormack is the founder and managing director of The BRIEF Lab, Downers Grove, Illinois, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly. He is also the author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus.

Compass Subscription