Watch the Noise – You Can Lose Your Message

In an outstanding example of failing to understand psychological noise, a British Ambulance service has apologized for asking 4,000 employees to rate how cool Adolf Hitler was as a leader.  What’s that, you ask?  How did they get to this point?  Excellent question.

Initial plan for survey? Maybe...

This explosive question was part of a survey designed to tease out employee opinions on the topic of leadership.  The idea, I suppose, was to galvanize these thousands of workers into thinking about what makes a good leadership figure in the hopes of fostering the climate necessary to grow leaders within the organization.  In actuality, what happened is that workers completing the survey found the message drowned out in the noise surrounding Hitler’s very name.

What’s this about noise?  Simple stuff really – as leaders and communicators, we all need to be aware of things, or noise, that reduce the strength of our signal.  In technical terms (supposing one was building a radio) this means controlling the signal to noise ratio.  In any case, we can break noise down into three broad categories:

  • Physical Noise – interference created by physical conditions such as cold or hunger.  In the practical sense this can be overcome in the business setting through simple measures like making sure everyone attending a meeting has a chair, making refreshments available, or scheduling health breaks.
  • Psychological Noise – interference caused by forces within us.  Extreme feelings, beliefs or trauma from past experiences are included in this category.  Dropping Hitler into a leadership survey to rate his coolness certainly qualifies.  The less noticeable instances of noise (i.e. someone’s family problems interfering in their ability to listen) can only be dealt with if you know the people you are dealing with.  In other words, you need to be an engaged leader to combat psychological noise…
  • Semantic Noise – interference caused by language issues.  I often see this when someone speaks in jargon or acronyms.  Local dialects might count too…  Easy fix – monitor your communications to remove jargon and gigantic words that nobody has ever heard before.  Hint – if you see people accessing an online dictionary while reading your memo, you may have lost your signal to semantic noise…

The ambulance company’s survey example goes from bad to worse.  Not only did they choose poorly in using Hitler as an example, their “after-action” comments sound like they’re defending their choice.  At the end of the day, no one will remember the attempt to inspire leadership within the ambulance employees, but everyone will remember being asked about Adolf Hitler as a “cool” leader.  Psychological noise at its best.

Anyone care to share an example of noise interfering with leadership?

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