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 coworker works in a building across the street from my building, but has frequent interactions with employees in my building. The structure of her position is such that she needs to get information or make requests of people in my department and other nearby offices on a daily basis. Her preferred method to do this is not just to email or pick up the phone, but to walk across the street and speak in person. This typically happens 5-10 times per week, sometimes multiple times per day.
I wouldn't think much of this (I might even applaud it) except that the underlying tone of her visits suggests that she thinks she will get faster results by coming by in person. I get the impression that she likes to put people on the spot, doesn't trust others to do their jobs, and wants to come over to make sure that the things she needs are happening immediately. She has interrupted discussions with coworkers and my boss, and has complained when coworkers are out of the office or not available. Her position and mine are at similar levels.
Building relationships through personal interactions is undeniably a good thing. However, the frequency of her visits is forcing me and my coworkers to drop everything to attend to her requests and making it impossible to focus. Any advice?
Ooooh, that's annoying.
The principle to keep in mind here is that people will continue to repeat a behavior if it gets them the results they want. So you need to show her that this isn't the fastest way to get things from you.
The way to do that is to decline to comply with her demands that you deal with her right now, this minute. When she shows up in person for something that isn't urgent, say, "I'm actually on deadline right now and can't talk, but if you send me an email with what you need, I should be able to get to it later today." (Or tomorrow, or whatever's reasonable.) Say it pleasantly, but say it and be firm.
If she pushes back with something like, "I just need a minute," don't give in. Say something like, "Sorry, but I can't break my train of thought right now; I'm right in the middle of writing something. Send me an email, though, and I'd be glad to help." And then turn back to whatever you were doing and continue doing it.
And if she interrupts a conversation that you're having with other people, don't let it happen. When she breaks in, say, "We're actually in the middle of a meeting, but I can call you later today."
And frankly, if you're moved to, you can also just tell her point-blank the best way to communicate with you: "I'm often focusing on a particular project, so unless something is urgent, it's better to email me, or if it's better suited to a discussion, to schedule a time to talk." If you feel like being a good samaritan, you could also add, "That's actually the case for most of us over here." (If indeed that's true of your department.)
Speaking of which, when she complains about people being unavailable when she shows up, you should cheerfully respond, "Jane is generally really busy. If you need to talk to her, it's usually best to email or schedule a meeting. If you show up unannounced, she may be in the middle of something else."
Overall, the point here is that just because she's showing up and asking for something, you don't need to give it to her that very second. You're the manager of your own time, and you're entitled to make decisions about what the most important use of your time is at that particular moment. (Obviously, don't do this if your job requires something different to or if she's well above you in the hierarchy -- but neither of these sounds like the case.)
It's also good practice not to be 100% rigid about it. For the sake of being nice, you can occasionally allow one of these interruptions -- just don't train her to think she can rely on it.
Sadly, this is often the way you have to deal with people who don't respect normal boundaries. If someone is a normal, polite person, there's no problem with letting them sometimes inconvenience you -- because you know they won't learn the wrong lesson from it. But when someone inconveniences you all the time, you need to take a firmer stand. These are the people for whom the saying "give an inch, take a mile" was invented.
Stop letting her have the inch. She's forfeited her claim to it.
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