Signal to noise ratio

David Huggins

It’s a term often used to describe the conditions when an electronically transmitted message can’t be understood because interference overwhelms it. Note, there’s nothing wrong with the message – it’s simply defeated by noise that was never intended.

This happens so frequently in our businesses today that it’s a wonder anything gets done! Leaders must ‘signal’ the focal or strategic intention of the business to all members of staff. Given that the message is clear and acceptable there’ll be a reasonable expectation that all relevant staff actions will conform to the intention. What frequently happens though is that resultant behaviors either do not conform or are distorted rather than as directed; occasionally, they’re completely ignored, the intention doesn’t register at all. This has to be very aggravating and frustrating for the leaders who see only the pure message that was sent; they’re not aware of the actual signal that was received – indeed if one was received at all. Such experiences tend to erode relationships.

We’ve all played the party game where a simple message is whispered through a group, one person at a time, only to be distorted out of all recognition within a dozen or less passes. As a game, this is hilarious, but not in business. Personal experience has also taught us that even purposeful one-to-one transmissions can be grossly misunderstood. So we strive to be direct and forthright in how we transfer our thoughts and intentions but this also fails more often than it succeeds. We can always test for clarity by asking others to respond with their interpretation of our message but then find that their subsequent actions seem not to relate to their professed understanding.

The real issue isn’t the clarity of the message; it’s the context in which it is being heard.

Strategic intention is a cerebral matter. It evolves from rational and dispassionate consideration of the facts, based on reasonable assumptions and upon shared insights and interpretations of realities. It is generated at an intellectual level, relayed in this way and responses are expected in the same vein. This is the ‘signal’. The ‘noise’ is altogether different. It’s the prevailing culture of the organization into which the signal is being injected. It is far from rational, in fact it’s either highly emotional or it’s apathetic. If the culture is strong enough, and it usually is, it will distort the signal beyond recognition.

Organizational culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. It’s the outcome of hundreds-of-thousands of small, seemingly insignificant events that create patterns that are then used by staff members to predict unfolding events – to keep themselves safe and secure, to optimize success and comfort – in short, to maintain the status quo. Think of it as the keel that serves a sailboat. If the incoming message is at variance with, or even unsympathetic to the existing culture, there’s a very good chance it will be deflected or sabotaged. We all seek security and safety; predictability is highly valued, after all, we’ve worked hard for it.

Culture isn’t going to go away and we cannot give up on providing clear, timely direction. So how can we make progress?

The answer lies in re-shaping the culture. Anyone can do this, contrary to traditional expectations. There are two levels of approach – the formal / intentional and the informal / subliminal and they are far from equal.

The formal culture is that prescribed by mandate; it’s enshrined in principles and corporate values, displayed in poster-sized plaques on the wall and even carried in the wallets and purses of staff members. It is so familiar that it is usually invisible to all other than strangers and new employees who are subtly advised to ignore it. The informal culture is alive and powerful. This is the ‘code’ which all new employees quickly learn, with the encouragement of more experienced staff, and which binds all into an inviolable understanding about the way we do things around here.

This culture has four facets – heroes, myths, rituals and networks. The first are the role models – golden-haired and black – who are the ‘go-to’ people and whose example is the standard for all others to follow. Myths are the stories we tell about ourselves, each of which conveys a simple and unavoidable truth about success and acceptance. Rituals are the practices and rites of passage that individuals must endure in order to be accepted or to be recognized by the group as significant; they carry informal status that’s generally more compelling in reality than any formal appointment. Networks are the channels through which communications and decisions are leveraged. Often referred to as the grapevine, it directs the flow of gossip and influence and feeds the body politic.

If the intended signal is aligned with these informal facets, identifying heroes, promoting myths, encouraging rituals and using networks, it might succeed. More importantly, if leaders will identify and remove those elements of informal culture that are incompatible with the desired strategic intention there’s an even better prospect. So, look at what is going on around you at the informal culture level; consider your strategic intention; emphasize those aspects that will support you and discourage those that stand in your way. Good leaders focus and facilitate the desire for change, so you need to decide, each and every day, what is signal; what is noise?

Promote your signal but work harder at reducing the ‘noise’; for sure there’ll be some ambiguity and in case of doubt, take it out!

About the author: David Huggins MASc, FIoD, CMS is an experienced behavioral scientist and executive coach who’s dedicated to bringing out the best in individuals and groups. His insights and direct contributions have taken business leaders to elevated dimensions in performance. He can be reached through his websites at www.andros.org and www.polarisprogram.com


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