If you have ever spent time dealing with radios or high-end audio equipment, you have probably heard of the signal to noise ratio. Simply put, this is the amount of signal that goes from a source to a receiver, say from a recording to your speakers, versus the amount of noise. A higher number is always better, since that indicates there is more signal reaching the receiver than noise.
In a corporate environment, this measurement may be harder to capture, but is nonetheless extremely important. In our own lives, most of us have a highly tuned noise meter and are able to effectively ignore most distractions. The key to any effective employee is someone who can ignore the noise and focus on what is important to accomplishing the objectives at hand. Where a dangerous breakdown occurs is when the noise drowns out the signal, and employees begin to focus on the noise to the detriment of all else.
How can you determine your company or groups signal to noise ratio? Try some simple observation and listening. If your subordinates seem harried or seem to be losing focus, determine what is distracting their focus. Are there new corporate initiatives that are serving as a distraction such as new HR policies or compliance requirements? Is there a rumor or concern of an impending organizational change? Are decisions taking too long to make, or constantly being reevaluated? Is the coffee maker broken?
Most of us can sense a general feeling of anxiety among others and, with a little work, you can usually find an employee or two who can articulate their concerns. Once you have spoken with such a person, consider addressing some of the more pressing issues with a larger group, to validate that you are not following up on the complaints of a few, and that the noise is affecting a large number of people. As a leader, it is imperative you shoulder this noise and make it clear to your subordinates that you will alleviate the noise while they focus on the signal.
One example relevant in a project-based environment is the anxiety about what comes next as a project finishes. This is an extremely stressful time, and a poorly managed or communicated transition strategy is a recipe for disaster. With unclear next actions, your project team will generate its own noise, drowning out the more important signals associated with closing up an organizational effort. In this environment, the best way to eliminate the noise ironically is to acknowledge it, and air it out in the open.
Provide a plan of how you will assuage whatever concerns the noise has raised, even if the best answer you have at the moment is that you do not know anything at this time, but will provide an update in one week. If you stick to your commitments, even when there is nothing new to report, simply sticking to regularly promised updates will make a huge difference in keeping down the noise.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies.
By Patrick Gray