A call for leadership: more signal, less noise

A group of office workers collaborate on a project while seated in front of a large window.

The one universal challenge faced by leaders today is the problem of overwhelm.

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes overwhelm as the all-too-common feeling “that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well”.

Before you rush to assume this is a “comms” thing and move on to something more important…not so fast. 

While we are still collectively grappling with how organizations can thrive through new ways of working and the imperative of the attention economy, the one thing we know for sure is that this is a strategic leadership issue. It’s not a tactical problem that can be relegated to an almost certainly under-resourced internal communications function. 

After all, what can be more important to an organization than the attention, energy and focus of its employees?

Based on early research and my own experience in the trenches with clients, here are my best five recommendations to achieve more signal and less noise in organizational communication and performance:

1. Slow down to speed up

The best place to start in re-imagining organizational communication in a hybrid setting is to intentionally consider the attention of employees as the corporation’s most important asset. It deserves careful stewardship and should be protected ruthlessly. Resist the twitchy urge to find the latest technology solution or cool tool  to throw at the challenge, which very probably is merely going to serve to exacerbate the problem of overload. Instead, my best counsel is to slow down in order to speed up.

Begin by establishing the fundamentals of what ideal would look like for a high performance organizational communication system in your context. Consider:

  • What is the essential North Star of the organization and how do you articulate it in a crisp, memorable statement?
  • What is the culture you want and how do you express it in a meaningful way to employees? A strong culture can save enormous amounts of time and mental space by clarifying expected behaviours and providing common guardrails to a distributed workforce. 
  • What is the core, high value deep work that your team has to perform? How can it best be supported by providing the right information, context and insight at the right time?
  • How can you design a coherent and compelling employee communication experience? What is the shape of your ideal organizational communication? Think about different levels of communication such as corporate information, executive communication and manager messaging. 
  • What is the ideal cadence of communication within the organization? Keep in mind that in this time of high anxiety and ambiguity, the touch point of a predictable drumbeat of communication is critical. In a context of uncertainty, establish certainty of communications. 
  • How can you edit the organization to reduce the clutter and noise? The place to start is to make meetings a last resort. Are there standard meetings that can be eliminated, shortened or re-imagined to unlock trapped time/energy from the organization? Ruthlessly eliminate outdated information or channels in order to create white space in the communication landscape. Be guided here by the Hippocratic Oath of organizational communication – first do no harm. Set up protocols and guardrails to protect employees’ attention from chaos and clutter.

2. Simplify

Complexity is the enemy in the hybrid attention economy. Yet, in a state of chronic destabilization, organizations tend to tumble into a vortex of complexification – information swirls, words keep piling on, cycles of approvals and review committees generate even more words and at the end of the day, nothing is communicated. 

The key to more signal and less noise is simplicity. Restraint is the order of the day – to communicate everything is to communicate nothing. 

Here are a few techniques that can help systematize simplicity:

  • Try the “Think-Feel-Do” model to plan communication messages. This works best in a reverse engineered mode – for example, at the end of the employee town hall, what do we want employees to think, feel and do? Notice that the central value here is “feel” – generally, organizations need to dial down the amount of words and intellectual content and dial up the emotional resonance and impact of messaging.
  • Be mindful that what communicates the loudest is behaviour, not words. Humans are normative beings and we’re wired to follow cues from peers and leaders. The work from home environment has erased many of these tacit signals and guardrails in company culture and operations. For example, if the company wants to demonstrate that sustainability is a top priority, make sure the appropriate senior executive is present and engaged at the meetings on sustainability. 
  • Focus on visual communication. We process images 6-60 times faster than words. In the chaos of ambiguity and disruption, simple charts and compelling visuals are the quickest unlock to securing attention. Keep in mind that in a context of high change, the key challenge isn’t so much about communicating the “thing” but rather how the “thing” relates to the other things. Consider how you can instantly increase clarity and coherence with a visual diagram that helps connect the dots.
  • Be deliberate about identifying anecdotes, sticky metaphors and stories that help bring communication messages to life. Use carefully chosen examples to help your messages land. 

One of the biggest barriers to simplifying messages is fear. I notice that in these early days of hybrid, leaders are often tentative about making expectations clear because they’re afraid of push back and anger. In a weird way, this excessive trepidation appears to be worsening employees’ feeling unmoored and disoriented. In the words of Brene Brown, “clear is kind”. Leaders should command the space they occupy and make expectations clear, including treating employees with respect in clarifying the “why” behind changes or policies. The goal is to be clear and respectful, appropriately balancing empathy with accountability.

3. Conversation is the smallest unit of change

People often ask me what the best channels are for reaching employees in the context of a hybrid workforce. I think that’s the wrong question. What we should really focus on is to identify the most effective form of communication. Without a doubt, conversation is the best way to communicate change. That’s because when communicating in a time of high change, the challenge isn’t just information dissemination – it’s sense making. Our brains are designed to make sense of patterns and context through conversation. That’s why the quickest way to improve communication in a hybrid context is to think deliberately about creating multiple on-ramps for conversation. These might include:

  • Interactive town halls
  • Round table discussions
  • Listening tours
  • Road shows
  • Team meetings
  • Bi-lateral check-ins
  • Coaching

Keep in mind that the essence of conversation is listening and exchange. In this environment in which employees are craving being seen and heard, make sure to emphasize authentic engagement, listening and connection. 

4. Work out loud

One of the root causes of the chaotic “hyperactive hive mind” phenomenon in organizations these days is immature project management. I consistently hear that employees and leaders are exhausted trying to keep up on information about projects and deadlines, which leads to a frenetic cross fire of email and instant messages. 

Introducing a simple project tracking system established as the go-to means of passive, asynchronous information will have an outsized effect on reducing communication overwhelm. An inexpensive tool such as Todoist, Asana or Trello immediately reduces anxiety and noise. In addition, such a system is a powerful signal toward an open, collaborative culture in which employees are encouraged to “work out loud” – implicitly curbing the rising tide of territorialism and information hoarding which has crept up in the margins of work from home environments.

Other approaches to promote calm through asynchronous communication include:

  • Rigorously documenting procedures and protocols so that there’s a single source of truth.
  • Deliberately being open and transparent about operating procedures with internal clients and partners to zap misunderstandings and disconnects in expectations in their tracks.
  • Establish a high-value intranet as the core “pull” form of communication. Design the intranet to foster a quality user experience built around the principle of “show me you know me”.
  • Use asynchronous tools such as Google docs or Miro boards to allow contributions from small teams to fit into the employees’ individual schedules.
  • Ensuring a strong approach to onboarding new employees so that they are set up effectively to succeed.

Bear in mind that sometimes, the cost of collaboration doesn’t justify its outcome. Shifting a culture toward working out loud and making meetings a last resort will increase accountability and performance while reducing noise. 

5. Think about a communications system

A chief problem with organizational communications these days is pervasive magical thinking. Many executives convince themselves that a magic bullet solution such as the archaic cascade model or a new fancy intranet is going to save them. 

A better plan is to think about deliberately creating an organizational communications system that is designed to work in a mutually reinforcing fashion. Like marketing, the idea is to establish a mix of tactics which work together to achieve a desired outcome. Consider including:

  • Executive communication to establish the tone and build trust.
  • A strong focus on middle managers who are uniquely positioned  do the heavy lifting of providing line of sight for employees.
  • A high performance internal communications team empowered to be the stewards of employee attention and who contribute by equipping and enabling executives and managers in their communication roles.
  • A strong partnership with HR on key communication activities such as onboarding, talent messaging and employee experience.

One thing to keep in mind is that a strong communications system relies on the foundation of clear messaging and internal content strategy. The goal is to set up a flywheel effect by having executive, manager, corporate and HR messaging communicate consistently and coherently.
Ultimately, committing to improving the signal to noise ratio in organizations will become a competitive differentiator. This is particularly true in organizations of knowledge workers. Race horses want to race – they don’t want to wake up every day to plough through 300 internal emails. It may be that the hybrid attention economy is exactly the burning platform that we’ve needed to catapult organizational communications as a leadership priority. 

If you’d like more resources on this topic, check out our Primer on Change Communications, or join me for our upcoming Change Communications Masterclass delivered online as a dynamic group coaching experience. 

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