Last week I went to go see a thought-provoking documentary, In Pursuit of Silence. As a systems thinker and writer, I value silence and have always been relatively sensitive to sound, especially while at work. I wanted to see what a film dedicated to studying silence had to present and maybe emerge with some new clarity around the impacts of silence and sound. The film had a perfect balance of science and spirituality that flowed and had prominent insights and calls to action surprisingly relevant for leaders to consider in cultivating supportive work environments. In this post I’ll detail my takeaways in terms of three key benefits of silence in the workplace, the value of intentional sound, and next steps for cultivating a culture of deeper support and collaboration on your team.
Three Benefits of Silence
The film documented the uses of silence and sound across many cultures and specific environments around the world from Japan, to Alaska, to the continental US, to India, and more. One of the most prominent features to me was also the piece about sound and the impact on schools. In cities, sounds from trains and surrounding noise are a major problem for school environments and impact the learning process negatively. In the school featured in the film, they reported that the loud train across the street from the school lowered productivity (class progress, etc.) by 15%. I thought of this in terms of the workplace, where similar focus and learning is necessary, and how I have been affected by sound. Through deeper reflection, I realized three central aspects of a supportive, productive work environment that are best cultivated in silence.
Having a one-pointed focus improves productivity rather than concentration being divided between your work and a conversation going on beside you.
One (maybe obvious) way that sound has impacted my work is focus. I can remember once at the workplace that I was working on an analysis project and there was construction outside. There have been many studies that have shown that distractions like construction, telephones ringing, dogs barking, and other noises have a negative impact on productivity and concentration and people do not necessarily adapt over time.
Learning is vital to expanding your tool belt at work, and is also vital to integrating new information and inputs to understand your work and improve the quality of the work you do.
Beyond the ability to merely having a consistent train of thought to focus on the work at hand, noise inhibits your ability to reflect, learn, and think independently. It’s not just distraction here but disturbance – disturbance of the internal dialogue and thought process you may have going on when focusing on something that resolves learning or reaching a resolution. When we have many inputs to reflection on and action on independently – meetings, e-mails, learning, etc – we need independent reflection time to integrate all of the information and actually apply it to what we are doing in our work. This is really the same as the ability to learn!
Creativity takes focus, reflection, imagination, and deep thought, among other things. I have found that I have birthed by most creative thoughts and insights in silence.
Maybe the most important thing that gets squeezed in the face of constant sound is creativity. Creative people know that though inputs and inspiration are necessary, all of that inspiration and learning integrates in silence for many of us. In our changing world, where technology is automating repetitive tasks more and more frequently, it’s more important than ever to be able to think creatively. That is, it’s important to be able to reflect and synthesize information to develop new insights and solutions to complex problems.
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The Value of Sound
Though silence is clearly valuable and I’m a huge proponent of it, I can’t deny the value of sound as well. As I mentioned above, sound is often a source of healing or inspiration and it is certainly key for collaboration in the workplace. Communication in meetings, video for trainings and conferencing, music (during those tedious independent tasks or team bonding activities), and clapping (praise and celebrating wins) are important.
After watching the film and deeper reflection (in silence), I realized that what seems to be missing is intentional sound and instead what is happening more and more is unnecessary or unintended use of sound in the workplace and the world in general. We invent something new that solves one problem but it’s creating many more – and these inventions like planes, trains, cars, copy machines, air conditions and purifiers tend to be noisy. So, we’re trading off some of the things above for these improved experiences. Also, we’re using sound to argue louder and get our point across, which is not collaborative or conducive to a supportive working environment.
How can we as leaders use this information to develop better environments for our teams to improve productivity, quality, and engagement? A first way is to be mindful of what cultivates a supportive working environment for you and your team. The answer is different for everyone. This involves checking with team members through weekly touch bases or observing to monitor how they respond to and ask for certain, unique supportive working conditions.
I once had a co-worker I sat across from in our open working space that would start the day blasting rock music. Even though she had headphones on, I could still hear it. It increased her productivity with what she needed to do but was devastating to me when I was craving silence in order to focus and read my e-mails. Solution? We talked it out and empathized with each other by communicating our points of view, experience, and needs. She turned down her music and eventually we decided it was best for our relationship to move further apart, which was totally fine and improved our relationship overall.
Open communication, empathy, and mindfulness are key. Cultivate a team culture where people feel comfortable speaking up if sound is annoying them. If they report that sound is affecting their work, support them by doing something about it that works for everyone. Reach a resolution. Also, lead by example by asking the same of yourself. How does silence support you? How does sound support you? What sounds do you intentionally allow or use in your work environment? What unintended sounds (noise) are jeopardizing your focus, reflection, and creativity? How can you take a step toward resolving it given the insights above?
A fountain cannot function beautifully without water in the reservoir. When you reflect and design environment with the supportive aspects and fuel you need to do your best work, your productivity, quality of work, and enthusiasm improve. You can find many more insights, prompts, and exercises for cultivate a culture of communication, collaboration and supportive work environment for yourself and your team in my new book, Awake Leadership.
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Thanks for reading! I hope this helps you become more interested in your relationship to sound.
In Pursuit of Silence Film website.