Sensory pollution and it’s impact on leadership

I’ve been thinking lately about pollution. This time, not pollution in the environmental sense, which is how man-made items contaminate the environment. Instead, I’ve been wrestling lately with another kind of pollution.

Leaders face so many distractions, which can pollute or contaminate the mind. Let’s call this “Sensory pollution,” a phenomenon that has been extensively studied in animals, but has a very important impact on leaders as well.

Some culprits of sensory pollution are social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and other value-subtracting stimuli. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are filled with garbage dopamine and cortisol hits. From a sensory perspective, social media contaminates my sense of sight and my sense of touch, reflexively scrolling through my news feed passing by the minutes looking for the next hit.

In fact, my phone is filled with distracting sensory pollution, engaging the sense of touch to select and scroll, the sight of an application opening up and having unread messages, and the sound of someone trying to reach me through the “ding” from the speaker. Just waking up in the morning can be a sensory pollution minefield.

Then there can be the pollution from draining relationships at work. The never ended meetings that do not reach next steps or a logical conclusion can also pollute the mind and cause a leader to focus on trivial tasks, putting out fires, and pure survival.

Finally, there’s pollution through the sense of taste. For example, when I am stressed, I know that I reach for items that contaminate my body including fast food, fried food, and sweets.

My point in sharing the concept of sensory pollution is that all of these things contaminate the mind and make a leader less impactful and effective.

At their core, leaders are responsible for three things:

1) IMPACT – Having an impact on the core measures and outputs for the business

2) LEGACY – Treating other people, including team members, colleagues, and senior leadership, well and with respect.

3) SANITY – Preserving their own sanity by managing the commitment and emotional investments that come with being a leader.

Does sensory pollution actually advance any of these three areas of focus? If, for example, knowing what is going on in the world is a part of your job, how might you minimize the noise of news cycle punditry to reduce sensory pollution?

The answer lies in lessons from the Stoics, among others. Part of preserving a leader’s sanity is to quiet the mind and be able to focus even in the face of distraction. It is one of the most difficult parts of leadership but also one of the most essential.

Ryan Holiday, a modern student of and prolific writer about Stoic philosophy has been a core resource in my leadership practice to learn how to reduce sensory pollution.

In a recent tweet, Holiday shared:

In addition, you can reduce sensory pollution by not checking your phone within one-hour of waking up in the morning, practicing some form of meditation, and developing non-work relationships in your life that do not mind listening to you reflect or vent on hard issues (pro-tip, someone with a long commute is generally excited to spend time with you on the phone).

Sensory pollution is one of the biggest risks for leaders and must be managed to preserve a leader’s impact, legacy and sanity. Work environments, and its values and behaviors, should make an effort to significantly reduce sensory pollution in order to drive its most important outcomes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: Sensory pollution for leaders are the things that contaminate your mind, make you reactive, and drain your energy. It is not as simple as going cold-turkey on negative stimuli. Leaders must have a routine or mitigation strategies to filter out the contaminants and focus on the three main aspects of being a leader – your impact, your legacy, and your sanity.