Having a teammate chat you up at work isn't always bad. It can let you get to know each other better, for example, ultimately improving how productive you are together. But when a teammate incessantly pings you on chat or stands in your space for a good 10 minutes with a run-on sentence the size of New Jersey, that's a problem. Sure, some people just don't read social cues well. Others honestly have the loneliness bug and are just looking to see a friendly face for a while. But you might be missing these less obvious reasons others won't be quiet and leave you alone.
1. They're not really perceiving what you're doing.
In 1979, psychologist Ulric Neisser showed people a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. Superimposed on the scene was a girl with an umbrella walking right through the center of the screen. Neisser asked study participants to report how many times the ball was passed. Because the participants' attention was directed to the ball and counting, 79 percent didn't even notice the girl. A team led by Keith Payne expanded on Neisser's work and found that unconscious biases also influence perception. This research suggests that, when people have defined goal (e.g., talking to you), they might not notice the dozen apps open on your computer or the stack of papers in front of you. Now consider, too, that your teammate might not be directly linked to or affected by the tasks you're doing. That lack of connection to your job can make them perceive your work as not important, giving them even narrower tunnel vision.
Verbally and physically point out the work you are trying to do to bring your tasks to their conscious attention. Be blunt about the fact you can't talk and what your deadlines are. Add a touch of humor, if you like, to diffuse the tension, but be firm.
2. They're not challenged enough (or the work is too hard).
If someone is spending time interrupting you, they could be taking frequent breaks to try to avoid whatever in their work is difficult for them. Listen to their conversation closely for little digs about your own skills or knowledge. If you hear those digs, they're probably engaging in neurotic projection, which is a defense mechanism that protects their sense of capability and self. Alternately, if their work isn't challenging enough, they might finish fast and end up with time to spare through the day. They engage in complementary projection and assume that you have as many extra minutes to kill as they do. Either way, the projection helps them feel like they're more equal to you, making them feel more secure as part of the group.
Tell Sally or Joe Gottatalk you're pleasantly amazed at how much free time they seem to have and ask how they feel about their workload. If they seem skittish, they're probably struggling. In this case, press a bit more to find out what they consider problem areas and connect them to resources. If they seem energized by the idea of adding more, ask what they think they could take on and help them talk to the boss about where to put their skills to better use.
3. They're looking to sabotage you.
If you're doing an excellent job, other team members might feel threatened by your skills and success. They might not want you to get fired, per se, and they may still genuinely like you, but they interrupt to slow you down and bring you back to their level. By doing that, they address their job insecurity and feel more comfortable, believing that the boss won't have a reason to pick you over them.
Give them plenty of appropriate praise and use inclusive language more often to affirm to your teammate that they're secure and valued. Admit when you have challenges. At the same time, look for other signs of sabotage, such as them not alerting you to messages or giving you misleading information. If the interruptions and additional sabotage signs continue, confront your teammate, or alert your boss or HR representative.
When someone won't stop encroaching on your time and constantly interrupts what you're doing, don't assume the problem is their inability to take a hint or lack of a social life. Sometimes, the issue is more about perception, skill level, or the fear of not making it. With a little communication and assertiveness, though, you can end the annoyance and finally get back to work.