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”, to 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 (she did not get this, and pressed for names of people who were interrupting my flow). 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 pre-emptively shooting down all solutions here, but I want you to know I have considered all the options and now 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 hours’ peace and get some work done.
I would like to tell her more directly that I cannot sit and chat all day but having been as direct as I can without being rude, it has not worked. Subtlety does not work as she is a self-confessed borderline Asperger’s case and has trouble reading signals. For instance I will start answering in “hmm’s” and “uh-huh’s”, look down, start typing, but she will continue to talk. As she is my boss there is an even greater need not to cause offence and eventually I cave and start responding normally.
I have thought about going to her manager, but as there are only the two of us in our little office, it will be patently obvious that the complaint came from me. It also seems like an extreme reaction to take this over her head.
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. I feel frustrated that she should know better as she is the boss, and she should know all this pointless chatting wastes my time. 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 an essential characteristic of an effective manager — the understanding that her employees are there to get things done, not to entertain her.
In any case, how about saying this: “Jane, I love working with you. You’re one of my favorite managers I’ve ever had, and I really just like you on a personal level too. But there is one way where 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 that 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 and be firm. Since she doesn’t pick up on subtler cues, you’re going to need to 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. And, just like a manager would do when talking to an employee about a performance problem when the first conversation didn’t work, you might escalate it in seriousness of tone and/or substance.
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’d explain why.
What other ideas do people have?
Want to read an update to this post? The reader’s update several months later is here.