MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Honest signals

I made a passing reference in an earlier post to work being done by MIT in the domain of non-verbal communication in the business context, now presented in a book by Alexander Pentland, Honest Signals. It seems worthwhile to return to that for a minute.

Pentland defines "honest signals" as certain non-verbal cues that can be seen in the interactions between people, typically in face-to-face communications. Falling generally into four classes – activity, interest, mimicry and consistency – they are subtle behavior patterns that we pay little attention to but that can be observed and measured.

Through what he calls "reality mining" Pentland has discovered and studied this "second channel of communication" – important components of communication that revolve around social relationships and that significantly influence our decisions, even though we may be unaware of their influence at the time.

He cites the counter-intuitive evidence of the destructive nature of certain policies related to socialization in the workplace. AT&T, assuming that the efficiency of one of its call centers would be higher if its staff took lunch breaks at different times found, instead, through Pentland's research, $15 million in performance improvements when they let everybody go to lunch at the same time. Those breaks allowed employees to informally talk out problems and find solutions that reduced stress and improved their performance.

He also likes to cite one component of their study involving entrepreneurs and investors. Investors who were present at the personal pitch of the ideas supported an entirely different set of business plans than those they had selected only through reading.

That understanding of the role of tacit knowledge and the influence of interpersonal dynamics is significant. We are unaware of these behavioral cues in our interactions with others, yet the decisions we make as a result of those conversations are profoundly affected by them. Again: visible behavioral patterns that we don't notice influence, without our knowing it, the decisions we make.

Now, go into your workplace and look around. Do you see high-walled cubicles where individuals scrunch down out of view of others? Do you see long walls of offices with doors creating a kind of "threshold resistance" to connection and communication? Are you a manager resisting socialization in your workplace?

If this is the form of your workplace, now imagine all that is being lost by missing the opportunities for those "honest signals." Is your company struggling to stay in place in your industry? Does this research suggest a different approach?

According to Pentland, "It turns out that those sorts of unconscious signaling behaviors are enormously important in determining the functioning of an organization. In organizations, most of the communication that’s complicated, that’s really important, still happens’s person-to-person; it’s not by email, it’s not by memo. And yet all of that face-to-face stuff never makes it into the digital record. There may be a memo summarizing a meeting later, or an agenda, but what actually happened never shows up. And all the interactions in the hall or around the water cooler are not even in the org chart. And yet that’s where everything happens."