Business Transformation

The Difference Between Music and Noise

When I was a young man, I would sit in the basement of our home with a friend or two and blast Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ with Disaster” as loudly as the stereo would go (and yes, it was a vinyl album on a turntable with gigantic speakers). Those of you who know the genre can picture the scene—sweaty teenage boys running around with air guitars and air drums, totally rockin’ out. Invariably, one of my parents would shout down the stairs, “Turn down that noise!” To me, it was music—appropriate for my age and disposition at that time of my life. To my parents, it was noise.

I wore the grooves off many such albums by bands like Rush, Kansas, Supertramp, and Styx, and drove my parents bananas in the process. In retrospect, had I been more mature, I would have taken the time to explain why my music was important to me in a constructive, objective manner.

Equally, it was their responsibility as adults to try to see the world through my lens instead of simply writing off this new music as a scourge in our society. Looking at the same material through different filters and not working to understand how those filters functioned led to unnecessary conflict in our home.

In my late teens, I owned a pair of rose-colored glasses—I thought I was so cool when I had them on, and to a certain extent they defined my personal brand at the time. We all walk around with a set of lenses through which we look at the world. Our lenses have been colored by our education, families, and work experiences—they are unique to each of us and help define our worldview.

Importantly, the “color” of your lenses changes over time and with experience. If I had to wear glasses today, they would probably have a light blue tint to them, which represents my current view—logical, balanced, and optimistic. As an individual on a continuous improvement journey, I am committed to ensuring my lenses improve in clarity and resolution as I age.

Earlier in my career, I was on a team project with a man with whom I had been acquainted for years—let’s call him Sam. Once we started working together—having substantive conversations—I quickly realized that when Sam spoke, I had difficulty processing what he was talking about. At first I tried to decipher his intent but rapidly became frustrated with our inability to communicate effectively. Sam’s words had turned to noise in my ears, and I did what most people do with noise—I shut it out.

Ultimately, our relationship deteriorated to the point where I would purposely avoid interacting with him unless I absolutely had to. As a result, the project we were working on failed. It was a true failure because we didn’t learn from the experience. Instead, team members blamed each other, creating an unhealthy work environment and fueling mistrust and resentment that was left unaddressed. This project team worked on a few additional projects over the next few years with limited results. Ultimately, Sam left the company, and a great deal of potential business value was never realized—all because my voice was noise to Sam, and his voice was certainly noise to me.

Sam is not a particularly remarkable character in my life story. However, he is one that created a memorable amount of angst and stress that could have been avoided had I done a bit more work and opened my mind to other ways of thinking. Specifically, what this earlier version of Andy didn’t realize was that I had an obligation to understand the lens through which Sam viewed the world. Arrogance, ego, and overt resistance to any type of behavioral training led me to believe that my viewpoint was all that mattered. My closed mind caused me to hear noise when Sam spoke. If I could have seen Sam through the tint of today’s light-blue glasses and made a real effort to consider the lenses through which he saw me, things would have probably played out much differently.

Unfortunately, I see versions of this story unfold frequently in business. Closed minds, narrow worldviews, and a general lack of willingness or ability among team members to invest the time and energy needed to think about the impact of lenses on team dynamics can be a leading cause of organizational discord. Lenses are not one size fits all; they’re one size fits you. Hence, we must be mindful that our perspective is unique, and we must help others understand how our lenses color and distort incoming information. I think of this coloration and distortion as the “Lensing Effect.”

What can you do to minimize the Lensing Effect? First, actively work to understand yourself and your coworkers. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Hogan Assessments, and DiSC Profile mentioned in part 2 of this book are examples of personality assessments that can be used to gain a better understanding of your own lens and the lenses your coworkers look through. Use your knowledge of MBTI, DiSC, and Hogan to paint a higher-resolution picture of the individuals you’re communicating with and how they are likely to process information.

Second, diversify your message. As mentioned earlier, it often takes more than seven times to get a message through. You also must communicate the message through multiple channels and in different ways. If your message is being received as noise, saying it slower or louder won’t help.

Third, focus on the importance of the “why.” No matter how wonderful you are as a communicator or how liked you are within the organization, crisply communicating the “why” behind your message is critical. This is because the status quo in most mature organizations is skepticism. Unless you’re incredibly charismatic and have your teams under a spell, you’ll need to present the “why” behind a decision or proposal in order to reduce the noise around your message and increase its fidelity.

Finally, seek to improve your listening skills. Active listening—rather than passive hearing—is key to gaining understanding in a conversation. Far too often I find myself thinking about how to phrase my rebuttal instead of understanding meaning and context and interpreting the body language of the person I’m talking to. I’ve got a long way to go here—especially on a personal level with those I love the most. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve disappointed my spouse by not being “present,” causing me to forget key details of our conversations. Put down the phone, unplug, and listen. When you truly listen, you might find music where there was once the perception of noise.

I haven’t turned my parents into raving fans of what we now call classic rock, but they have found an appreciation for it because they know how meaningful it is to me. They can understand its greater context and the influence it had in molding me as a person. Put in a business context, they made time and expended energy to hear and understand my point of view. My perspective hasn’t miraculously become theirs, but we’ve learned that through constructive discourse, we can appreciate each other’s music and points of view. Think about your network, both past and present—it’s highly likely that you can identify a “Sam” in your life.

Remember, your lens is one size fits you. Everyone sees things differently.

This article was adapted from the book,  Balancing Act: Teach Coach Mentor Inspire (Kaplan Publishing, a division of Kaplan, Inc.; April 6, 2021), written by Dr. Andrew Temte, CFA. Have you read?

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Dr. Andrew Temte
Dr. Andrew Temte, CFA, is President and Global Head of Corporate Learning at Kaplan North America. A thought leader on issues related to workforce reskilling and upskilling, his 30+ year career includes executive leadership roles in both professional education and higher education institutions. He is the author of the book Balancing Act: Teach Coach Mentor Inspire (Kaplan Publishing, a division of Kaplan, Inc.; April 6, 2021). Dr. Andrew Temte is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.