Ten Steps to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio in Your Life

signal to noise

Did you ever stop to recognize that we are all bombarded with “noise,” be it in the form of sound or motion or the endless pressure of the workplace, robbing us of the time we need to collect our thoughts, take a deep breath, and perhaps even have the chance to innovate?

Working with busy clients, I find the new normal to be one of near-constant interruption and a resultant inability to spend time in reflection – and real deep thinking.  One executive, who was trained as an electrical engineer, put it simply: “The signal to noise ratio is unacceptable in today’s workplace.”

Signal to noise is technically the ratio of the strength of any signal carrying information to that of the interference that is present while trying to discern that signal.  While it is generally expressed in decibels, it has come to be used in any number of fields, including WiFi networks.  There are a significant library of equations describing it.

What my client referred to, however, was the ratio of useful information – the actual “signal” – we receive vs. the overload of “noise” that is endlessly transmitted our way. We effectively lose the “signal” due to the noise.

Our workplace has been transfigured in a little over thirty years.  In the late 1980s, an “in” box and “out” box sat on each desk and letters and reports were drafted by hand or on typewriters.  Back then, a phone call could interrupt us, but it was not forced upon us, especially if there was a savvy secretary sitting in the outer office running interference.

Fast forward to today, as emails pile up on our computer screens, chat boxes populate on top of them, and our personal devices hum with personal and professional texts.  Often, we use streaming music to try to drown out the cacophony.  And even then the inevitable mandatory video conference invitations (ironic that they are called invitations, isn’t it?  Perhaps “mandates” would be more appropriate).  Some clients lament that of 40 hours at work (virtual or in the office), all of those hours is scheduled in video or in-person sessions.

What can we do as leaders to mitigate the “noise” in our lives or at least take some initial steps?  The first step, of course, is awareness that there is an issue.  By naming it, we can begin addressing it.  It might serve leaders to consider the following list or to develop their own.  Try a few of these ideas – they have worked for many of our clients and can effectively help you hear the “signal” better and indeed reduce the “noise.”

  1. Reduce Multi-Tasking – Concede that “effective” multi-tasking is a non-sequitur.  It is actually a sort of rapid serial processing that robs us of focus and creativity and can indeed make us less productive
  2. Turn off your Email – Turn off your email for 2-3 hours each day.  When you open it up again, the emails will still be there.  And do your best to teach your colleagues that “reply all” might be the most pernicious crime committed in the workplace.
  3. Silence Your Devices– Set the ring to “silent” on your personal device – and then put it into a drawer if you can.  It won’t be afraid of the dark, believe me.
  4. Change the View – Change your vantage point in the office or home.  Switch from one room to the other, depending on the sun or your mood.  And spend some time just looking out the window!
  5. Cut Down on News– Stop listening or watching the news as much as possible.  A quick reading of two or three news feeds will keep you informed about news events.  And it will do it without arousing your emotions.
  6. Shorten Your Meetings – Do something innovative like set up 12-minute meetings!  Yes, today’s e-calendars can accommodate that – we just seem to default to 30-minute increments.  There isn’t anything magical about 30 or 60-minute meetings, but we do often succumb to Parkinson’s Law.  A shorter meeting is crisper and so often more productive.
  7. Challenge Invitations – And don’t be afraid to challenge the meeting “invite” list.  So often people get called together as the “usual suspects,” out of habit.  Asking “I’d be glad to come, but what do you think I can add?” can be a good jolt to old habit patterns by leaders.
  8. Question Agendas – So too with the agenda.  If it becomes evident prior to or even at the start of the meeting that there are no expected deliverables or outcomes, it can save everyone’s time if someone points that out and courageously suggests a cancellation or delay until we all know the “why” of a meeting and the establishment of an outcome-based agenda..
  9. Take a Coffee Break – Have a cup of coffee or tea – and just take the time to visualize the next few hours, the next day, and beyond. If you need to go outside or find a quiet nook, it’s well worth the time it takes to walk there.
  10. Disconnect and Enjoy Time with Your Loved Ones– Take time with your family and friends whenever you can. Create “device-free” zones, especially at dinner time. Be especially mindful of the times where your mind gets pulled away from loved ones and back to the office. Pausing and enjoying friendly conversation without distraction – that indeed is a signal that can recharge your batteries.

 

Can I Overuse My Leadership “Strengths?”

In executive coaching, we spend considerable time helping clients build awareness about their range and capabilities as leaders.

A foundational element of that work is helping clients make meaning of their long-held understanding of the ideas around “Strengths” and “Weaknesses.”

The lens we use instead focuses on the idea of “well-developed,” and “less-developed” capabilities and attributes. A recent blog by my colleague Lisa McNeill so eloquently described those concepts.

Each of us has many well-developed sides. One example may be an ability by some leaders to speak and make their voices heard. For others, it may well seem to be almost the opposite, with attributes of listening and appreciative inquiry.

So, too, do each of us have less-developed sides that we can explore in coaching to help expand our range. The person who commonly uses the well-developed ability to speak can use choice, for instance, to include pausing and listening. The well-developed listener can expand their range to include expressing themselves more. It takes awareness and practice to expand their range as leaders. And it also takes an appreciation that they need not give up the “well-developed” attributes – just know when they are using – or overusing – them and choose to move towards their less-developed capabilities.

It is often a revelation for individuals to realize that the appreciation of where they are “well-developed” are attributes like muscles that serve them and that adding other muscles – the “less-developed” capabilities – expand their range.

Consider this: I once worked with a client who described himself as “stubborn.” He characterized it for me as a weakness. Through a series of questions, I asked if being stubborn had served him in any way. He admitted that he was not the type to give up on a project or in working to develop a subordinate.

“And how would you call that a weakness?” I asked.

“Well, I guess it isn’t always that way,” he said.

We explored more together and it emerged for the client that being stubborn had served him throughout his career. He was the person who saw things through to their completion. He had devoted countless hours towards the success of his company. His well-developed “stubbornness” was the grit and determination of a leader.

In our sessions, he realized, too, that at times his stubbornness had come at some personal expense.

“When did that happen?” I questioned.

“Well, sometimes I just don’t give up, even when I know the project is a dead end.”

“Anything else? I asked.

“Sometimes it is hard on my family as I work all night long to complete an assignment.”

Then he admitted: “And there are times I don’t accept an idea that differs from my own.”

Such moments can serve as breakthroughs for a client, as they realize that their well-developed sides serve them, but, if overused or if they become habitual, can stop serving them or even cost them.

As Gestalt coaches, we often use the concept of “polarities.” Using the example of the “stubborn” client, I invited him to think of a polarity related to that attribute. His answer: “flexibility,” along with “receptivity,” and “openness.” I asked him how he would “glide” between his stubborn side and his flexible one. Neither side was good or bad, strong or weak – they were both attributes that could assist him in his leadership style and personal interactions with those around him.

Throughout the next few sessions, the client spoke about how he wanted to “try” using both his well-developed and less-developed sides. His practice with a new capability grew through his own intentions and choices he would make working with others. He became skilled at reading a situation and knowing when to use his already-developed “stubborn” side, along with his developing “flexible” one. He became more adept the more he practiced and reflected on his success in our sessions together.

Working with clients as a coach teaches me more than I can relate, and it serves me in helping leaders throughout the world. Expanding our range is a worthy goal for all of us – and appreciating our own “well-developed” sides is such a great first step!

This article originally appeared on Bostonexecutivecoaches.com.

That Didn’t Work Out the Way I Thought It Would… When outcomes don’t match our intentions

It has happened to all of us.

There are various scenarios, but it can go something like this: we get a call from a co-worker who expresses concern about something we might have said or done. We immediately begin explaining the facts about what we were trying to accomplish, carefully going into full detail for the benefit of the other person.

Then you hear, “Wow, you sure sound very defensive,” or “I feel as if you are overreacting.” From there, things can go from bad to worse.

You hang up and shake your head, saying to yourself, “I didn’t intend for that to happen, but the other person should have understood what I was trying to say.” That feeling grows even more over time and a relatively small issue becomes an interpersonal concern for you and the other individual. Over more time a deeper resistance can build between you.

A number of clients have had this happen. What they learn in our coaching sessions is that their intentions sometimes do not match the outcome, or, in other words: “That didn’t work out the way I thought it would!” Read More…

How Do You Fly Through Turbulence?

Turbulence

“This is your captain speaking.  We’re experiencing some turbulence right now.  My first officer and I are working with air traffic control to find a smoother altitude for you.  In the meantime, please keep your seat belts securely fastened.”

How many times have you heard language like this? And have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes on the flight deck and contemplated using that as an example of how we all can lead our organizations in times of turbulence?

As a coach, I often use metaphors to help clients build their awareness. And as a former professional pilot, I have to admit that I very often use metaphors that are aviation-related.

Turbulence. We’ve all experienced it in flight and no doubt we’ve also felt metaphorical turbulence in our personal and professional lives. And we have each reacted to it in a multitude of ways.

A captain of an airliner has a role, not unlike a corporate leader. Even more than in a company, though, the captain is literally strapped to the airplane and controlling its every movement. What does a captain do that a corporate leader can emulate? Read More…

How Do I Have a Successful Conversation? Try “CLIP”

CLIP

Perhaps the most important skill a leader can have is to engage in timely, appropriate, and ultimately successful conversations with others.

So often things get in the way.  It might be that we are uncomfortable with the other person or the subject is something that we have been avoiding. Sometimes it is just our own reluctance or what we project to be the resistance of the other individual. And it could well be that we have spent so much time coming up with our own script and arguments prior to engaging in conversation that we forget the goal of any interaction is connecting with another.

Whether it’s a coaching moment, a periodic review, or a status check on a project, the best approach for a leader is to create a container of communication and trust with another. We achieve that by focusing our effort on understanding the person and working to appreciate their viewpoint. We can do that by forfeiting our innate desire to respond to the other person with our own perspective or argument.

In other words, the best approach is to have the planned outcome to be that of merely learning about the other. That intent helps us join with someone. Initially, the vehicle to achieve that is completely one-sided, with a commitment on our part of not using that time to present our own thoughts or opinions. It may seem counterintuitive, perhaps because it is not commonly used in today’s conversations. Read More…

Will We Ever Return to Our Offices?

The world of office work changed in March of 2020. The question is, did it change forever – and more precisely – for good? I have experienced a number of webinars and scanned more than a few articles in recent months that have declared the office as we know it as dead.

“It’s gone and will never return again,” is the gist of what I have heard.

I’ve been on the planet long enough to know that any declaration filled with such certainty is bound to be either wrong or only partially right, depending on your viewpoint.

To be sure, the workplaces we knew in early 2020 will likely not return as we knew them. But then again, the offices of 2010 never came back, did they? Nor did those of 2000, 1990, or 1980. Having the memory of the “ancient world” of offices pre-computer, I can tell you that none of us – including me – would recognize the world of typewriters, carbon paper, and even dictation machines that were part of the office years ago. A 200-baud fax machine was state-of-the-art back then!

To be sure, in spite of the tragedy and challenges of the past year, there have been great advances in science and in the technology of communication. The various video platforms we now routinely utilize have improved on bandwidth, fidelity, and functionality by leaps and bounds. And many of those who were reluctant to use such technologies have embraced them and now see them as essential tools of communication. So, to that degree, we have seen a significant shift in how we communicate – and that is a good thing. As one of my Boston Executive Coaches colleagues notes, “It serves a purpose in a time of need.” Read More…

How Do I Meet My Goals? Hitting a Moving Target

When I served in an Army tank battalion we were taught marksmanship; first at stationary targets, and later, at moving ones. In the classroom, we learned that if the target was moving left or right you had to aim a bit ahead in the direction it was traveling in order to hit it. As we transitioned to ranges with actual moving targets, we had to compensate for vehicles that might be maneuvering at what then seemed like incredible speeds, sometimes as high as 30 mph.

The best marksmen and tank gunners were those who fired an appropriate distance ahead of the vehicle. We called it “Leading the Target.”  The finest gunners would apply mental feedback loops to compensate for windage and smoke.  Initially coached by experienced tank gunners, they asked themselves a hundred questions and later developed shortcuts for answering them. Today we call those shortcuts heuristics. Others call them intuition.  Either way, all are based on gathering information and awareness about one’s environment and then making meaning of it.

Targeting and marksmanship are metaphors often associated with leadership and business. “Right on target,” “Straight-shooter,” or “Bull’s eye” are not uncommon terms thrown about in corporate settings.  But “Leading the Target,” has often drawn blank stares from my colleagues. It shouldn’t. Business is moving at a speed considerably faster than 30 mph.  And, unlike modern tanks with computers and predictive gun sighting technology, it still takes leaders and teams working together in an organization to effectively stay ahead of the speed of change.  Leaders and teams, not unlike marksmen and tank gunners, must determine which organizational challenge or target to concentrate on and how to effectively “hit” it. Read More…

How do I reach people I disagree with?

Disagree

As a senior vice president, I used to sit around the table at corporate boardrooms and listen to varying opinions about the business.  Some I agreed with – others I did not.  When I experienced disagreement rising, I could feel my energy building towards argument and a need to somehow convince the other person about why I was right; the other wrong.

Such feelings are common.  It happens to each of us at various times in our professional and personal experience.  In coaching, we invite our clients to work towards “reaching others where they are,” which provides a means to bridge those gaps between humans.

Our journey bridging those gaps begins with the understanding of a concept called “Resistance.”  Resistance is really a basic form of energy.  It is effectively used by each of us to protect us from the unknown, which can include anything from fearing a roller coaster as a youngster to hearing a new idea in the corporate board room and quickly concluding that it might hinder our own efforts or even harm the company.

When we encounter an idea that is new to us, or that runs counter to what we “always” have done, we feel a resistance inside us.  As a coach I invite clients to “lean into” that resistance with curiosity and appreciative inquiry, helping them build awareness about the issue or idea before moving to action. Read More…

Why Can’t People Just Stop and Listen? “The Power in Pause”

stop and listen

I remember hearing a joke about a young man on a blind date. Over dinner, he spent hours providing his date with non-stop detail about his life, his thoughts, and his feelings.

At some point, though, in a rare moment of introspection, he must have recognized that perhaps he had talked too much and had not asked questions or, for that matter, even stopped to think or listen.  So, he quickly asked, “Well, that’s enough of me talking – tell me what you think of me!”

Few leaders suffer from such communication issues, but many fall into the trap of failing to take the time to listen, to be attentive, and to give space so that the other person or team members can feel themselves invited into the conversation.

Such leaders are thus limited in their ability to be attentive to others.  In order to provide that opening, they need to stop for a moment, to allow the other person to collect their thoughts and formulate an answer.  I call it  “the power in pause.” Read More…

I’m So Busy – How Do I Prepare for a Meeting?

Busy people

You’re a busy manager and it’s Sunday evening.  You’re trying to get ready for the upcoming week.  You log onto your work calendar and incredulously look at your Monday schedule wide-eyed.   You are booked with continuous back-to-back meetings from 7 am until 6 pm!

“What happened?” you ask yourself.  Then you remember that a dozen people have access to your calendar and, being the ultimate pleaser, you have agreed to every meeting request.  Without realizing it, you have set yourself up.  It looks as if you will have no down time at all during the day.

And you won’t have something else:  The ability to mentally and physically prepare for each scheduled meeting.  From one-on-ones to team sessions, you will jump from conference room to office and back again continuously.  And at the end of the day, you will try to make meaning of it all.

“I’m just incredibly busy – and that’s the way it is,” some clients tell me.  Others try to convince themselves – and me –  that they are exceptionally good at multi-tasking, and besides, “I just facilitate the sessions and direct others – I don’t need to do the work that comes out of the meeting.” Read More…