How to build a culture that honors quiet time

If you could travel back in time to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to visit the legendary meeting hall where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention did their business, you would find something rather odd.

The street in front of Independence Hall was covered with a huge mound of dirt.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution ordered the construction of this earthen noise barrier because they feared that the sounds of horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and conversations outside would disrupt the intense concentration needed to accomplish their task. The delegates did not go into total monastic silence. Historical records show that there was much debate and disagreement. But there was an underlying recognition that the band needed a quiet container to do their extremely difficult job. This was the point of the great mound of earth.

Fast forward about 240 years, and you’ll find that lawmakers in the United States have quite a different attitude toward noise. One of us, Justin, worked for several years as a legislative director in the United States House of Representatives, and he always found it too loud to think about. With cable news, Twitter notifications ringing, high-decibel alarms signaling votes, not to mention the informational noise that pervades Capitol Hill: endless urgent emails and the constant pressures of networking, politics and media management.

The example of this radical change over 240 years illustrates a simple fact: an organizational culture can be loud or quiet.

A world of noise

There is empirical evidence that life is noisier than ever – there are increasingly loud and ubiquitous televisions, speakers and notifications from electronic devices in public spaces and open plan offices. Across Europe, around 450 million people, or around 65% of the population, live with noise levels that the World Health Organization considers hazardous to health. All of this has serious implications for our mental health, our physical health, and our ability to generate creative work.

The meaning of noise can sometimes be subjective. One person’s symphony is another person’s annoyance. We define “noise” as all unwanted sound and mental stimulation that interferes with our ability to make sense of the world and our ability to act on our intentions. In this sense, noise is more than a nuisance. It is a major barrier to the ability to identify and implement solutions to the challenges we face as individuals, organizations and even entire societies.

So how do we transform noise standards? In our teams and in our larger organizations, how can we build cultures that honor the importance of silence?

If we want organizational cultures that respect calm, there are a few general principles we need to apply to effect transformation. The first is that we have to deliberately talk about it; we need to have clear conversations about our expectations for constant connectivity, when it’s okay to be offline, and when it’s okay to set aside spaces for uninterrupted attention. These conversations can address deeper cultural questions, such as whether it’s possible to be comfortable in silence together rather than always trying to fill space, or whether it’s okay to be multitasking when another person is sharing something with you.

We have found that, in different contexts and situations, answering the following three questions can help teams begin to respect quiet times.

In what ways am I creating noise that negatively impacts others?

Engaging in a conversation about shared silence doesn’t just mean taking the opportunity to point out the loud habits of others. The best place to start a conversation about group norms is to check in with yourself. How do you contribute to the auditory and informational noise faced by the large collective?

Maybe you unintentionally leave ringtones and notifications on full blast. Maybe you “think out loud” or habitually interrupt others. Perhaps you post impulsively on social media or text or email excessively that require responses. Maybe you listen to music or podcasts in common areas without checking in with others or skip important work calls while your daughter sits next to you doing her homework.

Take the time to ask yourself if a given habit that generates noise is necessary or if it is really just an unexamined impulse – a fault that needs to be reset. If your self-observation doesn’t yield clear insights, ask a truther in your life for observations on how you could do better.

What noisy habits bother me the most?

Susan Griffin-Black, co-CEO of EO Products, a natural personal care products company, tells us that she made a vow years ago to “never be on my phone or my computer when someone one talks to me, no multitasking when I’m with someone else. She maintains her golden rule, despite having hundreds of employees, a family and many social commitments.

Like Susan Griffin-Black’s pledge not to multitask in the presence of other people, you can set a rule of thumb to tone down the noise or bring in more deliberate silence. Model what you want to see more of in the world. Stop to think about what you value most when it comes to cutting through noise and finding calm. What personal rule of thumb reflects this? Or, alternatively, think about the noisy habits that bother you the most. What golden rule would apply to these?

How can I help others find the quiet time they need?

In the 1990s, as an executive at Citysearch (now a division of Ticketmaster), Michael Barton noticed a problem. Workers, especially programmers and developers, struggled with noise and frequent interruptions in the open-plan office. A young analyst at the company pitched him an idea: Give each team member a “red belt” – a three-foot-long / three-inch-wide strip of bright red cloth – to wear as a sign of “don’t not disturb”. There would be no stigma in wearing it if everyone knew they could just open their drawer, pull out their red belt, put it around their neck, and be considered “out of the office.” Barton took the idea to the chain and the company decided to give it a try.

The red belt was not a panacea. This did not eliminate many of the noise and interruption issues. But it was a start. This led to several other experiments, including silent telephone booth-sized mini-workstations and an airtight “tech cave” for coding work. More importantly, however, the red belt intervention raised the issue of noise and distraction and opened up an important dialogue.

Where appropriate and when under your influence, think about how you can be a champion of silence – not just across the organization, but specifically for people who don’t have the power or autonomy to structure their own situation. Perhaps you are in a position in your company where you can call the fate of an engineer or a writer who clearly needs refuge from the din of the workplace. In the personal sphere, you may suspect that your introverted nephew might enjoy the occasional break from loud family events, and you can gently raise the issue with your sibling.

While you can’t unilaterally set overall band norms and culture based on what you think is right, you can be on the lookout for new ideas to come up with or new opportunities to manage the soundscape or improve. atmosphere, especially those that serve the interests of those who lack influence.

Transforming noise standards

Participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention had standards that honored silent deliberation. Facilitating perfect attention was a common goal. This large mound of dirt reminded them – and the public – that the purpose of their gathering was to go beyond distraction in order to do important work. While a mound of dirt wouldn’t solve today’s problems (noise is so often on the inside our offices and our homes), there are ways, as we have seen above, to change organizational cultures with regard to noise and silence.

At Citysearch, it was red belt. For Susan Griffin-Black, it’s about adhering to a golden rule. But there are many other ways to help create cultures of silence. In some organizations, it’s “no email on Fridays” or “no meetings on Wednesdays.” In others, it eliminates the expectation of being available and using electronic devices on weekends or after 5 p.m. For some workplaces, a floor plan overhaul can help certain types of workers focus on their needs. One solution might be to allow uninterrupted blocks of time during the working day. Another might be to ditch the open floor plan and move the entire office to a new building. For still others, it’s about eliminating email as the primary means of communication and instead turning to twice-daily team update meetings or an electronic system that saves space. silent head.

In our society today, noise standards run deep. Requirements such as constant connectivity and maintaining a competitive edge still prevail in most office cultures. Few organizations value or prioritize immaculate human attention. But there are simple strategies we can employ to find our own personal sanctuaries and change the larger culture. By reclaiming silence in the workplace, we can create the conditions to reduce burnout and improve creative problem solving.

Even in an increasingly noisy world, we can be peaceful together.

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