The solution is sensemaking, a critical competency for managers that want to alleviate workplace stress and provide clarity so employees can operate at peak efficiency.
The problem is information overload AKA infobesity, infoxication, information anxiety, info glut, and data smog. It’s caused by the sheer quantity of and easy access to information. Information overload is not a new problem. The term was coined in 1964 by Bertram Gross in his book, The Managing of Organizations. He referred to historical examples reaching as far back as back the Renaissance. Alvin Toffler popularized the term in his 1970 book, Future Shock. Any time someone is overwhelmed by the amount of data and inputs they must process, they’re experiencing information overload.
In the workplace, people in most roles are inundated with new, different, and conflicting information every day. This has become so prevalent, that we accept it as a normal. But it’s not, and it has serious, negative consequences.
What’s the Negative Impact of Information Overload?
To understand the impact of information overload, we have to consider five realities.
- Impossible Standards: How much information should we be pursuing? What is an appropriate limit? In any analysis, decision-making process, or conclusion drawn, we have to act before we could possibly gather and evaluate ALL the information available. It’s no longer possible to look at every input.
- Confirmation Bias / Echo Chamber: Although we can’t find and review ALL information available, we have to be careful not to deflect too far the other direction. If we filter for what’s familiar, comfortable, and affirming, we’re operating with an unchecked confirmation bias. Staying in your own echo chamber is too limiting and won’t provide ample varieties of the information needed.
- Cognitive Capacity: Somewhere in between the two extremes is the reality of our own cognitive capacity. Cognitive capacity is the total amount of information that a brain is capable or retaining at any particular time. When multitasking, distracted, or under pressure, a portion of your cognitive capacity is consumed, leaving less for new information. Different people have different capacities. What’s more, each of us has different capacities at different times.
- Satisficing: In response to our own cognitive capacity and in an effort to accelerate task completion, problem solving, and decision making, we often settle for satisficing. Satisficing is a combination of satisfying and sufficing. It means accepting what’s good enough rather than seeking what’s best.
- Shutting Down: When faced with too many choices, too much information, or too much to process, people reach their limit and shut down. This isn’t a personality defect or a sign of poor commitment. It’s a brain-based reality. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes decisions and controls emotions, has its limits. When reached, it acts like a breaker, turning off when the limit has been reached. In those moments, if not recognized for what it is, people make bad choices and mistakes.
These five realities will help to explain why the negative impacts of information overload need to be taken seriously. Among the adverse reactions to information overload are:
- Inability to retain information. Memory loss is highly correlated with both multitasking and increased volumes of information exposure.
- Inefficiency and loss of productivity. It takes longer to take in more information. Taking in too much information triggers cognitive shutdown. Coping mechanisms for avoiding too much information lead to confirmation bias and satisficing.
- Compromised decision quality. The information overload alone (not to mention the five realities) creates stress. Getting “through it” becomes the goal rather than getting to a good decision. Hasty or satisficing decisions, made under duress, are seldom good outcomes.
- Stress, burnout, and fatigue are real. You’re not imagining it. The exposure to more information, the impossible standards, and the FOMO cause anxiety and a vague lack of confidence in your own and others’ conclusions.
- Pass-along vs. processing of information. The problem is only exacerbated and distributed when employees are too overwhelmed to spend time critically evaluating information and analyzing findings. Passing along information (rather than sharing conclusions) is a sure sign of overload. Progress is significantly slowed when there are endless meetings spent sorting through data vs. entrusting analysis to an individual or smaller group.
- Important information is missed or forgotten. Competition for brain space is fierce. In a LexisNexis study, 91% of employees admitted that they discard emails, memos, or other information in the workplace without fully reading it.
- There’s a financial cost. An estimated $650 billion is lost each year in U.S. companies as a result of information overload, missed information, and poor decision quality. That doesn’t even take into account the reduced productivity and burnout costs!
What prevents us from recognizing these negative impacts and addressing infobesity is that we also have FOMO. Our fear of missing out pushes us to pursue more and more information every day and to indulge meaningless pursuits and distractions. (Yes, even cat videos contribute to cognitive shutdowns!)
That’s why we need awareness about infobesity. It’s also why managers need to avoid piling on to information overload and must, instead, become sensemakers.
What Is Sensemaking?
Sensemaking means making sense of information and inputs so that it can all be synthesized and acted upon. Karl Weick introduced the term in 1995 and described it as the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity in the world into something that can be comprehended quickly and explicitly.
Sensemakers guide others to explore a wider breadth of information and inputs so they can create a map to navigate through it all. They think critically to challenge assumptions and barriers in seeing links between information. They ask questions to promote self-discovery and to identify gaps in assimilating information. And they guide others through the process of deconstructing complexity.
Sensemaking provides context and combats ambiguity. It minimizes the risks associated with unchecked information overload. During times of rapid change, sensemaking helps people make faster transitions because they’re able to understand them better.
Far too often, businesses rely on sensemaking’s counter-competency, “dealing with ambiguity.” Rather than addressing the ambiguity, this competency suggests managers and others should somehow figure out their own ways to operate despite the ambiguity.
Expecting people to deal with ambiguity is a cop-out. Instead of helping them make sense of things, this suggests that they should navigate through information overload and make sound decisions even as things remain ambiguous.
Sensemaking sorts out what’s ambiguous. It connects dots and provides clarity. It’s not a synonym for “analyzing” or “sensing.” Both are involved, but sensemaking is more. It’s taking in what’s known, considering what’s unknown, pulling it all together, and then breaking it back down into manageable chunks that are relevant, important, and meaningful to the task at hand.
Why Is This an Essential Competency for Managers in an Age of Infobesity?
Employees want clarity, consistency, and support. They don’t want ambiguity, unnecessary stress, deluges of information that lack context, or uncertainty about how to be successful.
Employees rely on their managers to give them context and remove obstacles. When they don’t get what they need, employee engagement levels nosedive.
Employee engagement is considered the single biggest driver of employee retention and productivity, along with significantly contributing to customer satisfaction and profitability. No business can afford to neglect employee engagement.
Managers are the primary driver of employee engagement. In other words, managers must engage employees. To engage employees, managers must become sensemakers.
Additionally, sensemaking managers can reduce all the adverse impacts of infobesity. Supporting employees by providing context and by refusing to be an information dumper will pay off in employee morale and capabilities. Instead of spinning, employees will have clarity and reasonable expectations when they encounter information and have to consider what’s useful and how much is needed.
Component competencies for sensemaking include critical thinking and communicating effectively. An interest in the big picture is essential. Being able to think about possibilities and how disparate parts might fit together is also useful. In the absence of these abilities, managers should collaborate with other managers to ensure sensemaking of the issues and challenges facing the organization.
To learn more about essential management and leadership competencies, check out the courses on People First Leadership Academy. www.peoplefirstpotential.com