Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
My boss and I work together in a small office. We get on well and have a great relationship, and she is easily a contender for the best boss I have ever had. The problem is that she is very chatty, usually about mundane personal things but also often about unimportant work-related matters, and I don't know how to get her to stop talking. I have tried all manner of strategies, including headphones (which we are not supposed to use but I can resort to maybe once a week), saying things like "I need to do some work now," and explicitly saying "I am wasting time with all these interruptions" and then naming her as one of the people interrupting me when she asks who is causing the breaks in my concentration. I have tried standing up and leaving the office to make teas and coffees, but she will continue the conversation upon my return. I tried going to lunch with her so she could "get it out of her system" but this only encouraged more talk about our lunch plans, and talking on the way back to our desks which did not end when we sat down. Moving desks is not an option. I feel like I am preemptively shooting down all solutions here, but I want you to know I have considered all the options and need a fresh perspective.
I think the problem is that, from her point of view, there is always time to chat as she catches up on a lot of work at home. I have specifically made it so that I am unable to work from home, as I like to keep these my work and personal lives separate or I will end up working all the time. I find I now come into the office earlier and earlier to avoid her, so that I can have an hour's peace and get some work done.
I am falling behind with my work, and not only that I am now starting to resent her presence in our office. I cheer inwardly when I learn she will not be in that day, and feel irritable and deflated the moment I hear her arriving in the morning. This is not what I want at all - I do respect and like her as a manager and if I could just sort out this one tiny thing, life would be perfect!
Well, you may like and respect her as a manager, but I don't. She's lacking something pretty essential in a manager -- the understanding that her employees are there to get things done, not to entertain her.
However, the fact that you have such a strong relationship means that it can probably withstand you being straightforward with her. How about saying this: "Jane, I love working with you. You're one of my favorite managers I've ever had, and I really like you on a personal level too. But there is one way that we're not working well together, and it's this: You're able to still get your work done even when talking to me a lot during the day. But I can't. I'm finding the amount that we talk during the day to be distracting and it's preventing me from being as productive as I want. The last thing I want is to offend you, but I need to dramatically cut down on how much chit chat we have during the day. Can you help me stick to this resolution?"
You might also say, "I know we're both in the habit of chatting a lot, so going forward, I'm going to be really vigilant about not doing that. I'm mentioning it now, because when I tell you that I can't talk, I don't want you think I'm being rude."
The idea here is that this is a big-picture conversation, not something in the moment about one particular instance. (In fact, this is the same advice I give to managers who are frustrated that an employee is continuing to make the same type of error: Stop addressing it instance-by-instance and step back and have a big-picture conversation about the pattern.)
Then, after that big-picture conversation, when she starts chatting with you, be direct each time: "Working over here!" or "I'm immersed in X, let's talk later" or "I'm tuning you out!" (said with a smile) or whatever.
And if that still doesn't work, then you need to have another conversation with her, this time about the fact that your first conversation about it hasn't changed anything.
However, two caveats to all this:
1. It's possible that this will chill your relationship. It shouldn't, but if she's immature, she may take this personally.
2. Even with doing all of the above, she still might not change. Just like with a manager who's a wimp or a jerk, some traits are not changeable. So you can and should try these strategies, but if they don't ultimately work, you may need to decide how far you're willing to take it.
Or you could just wear headphones, every day, all day. And when you're approached about violating the company's headphones policy, you could explain why.
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