A reader writes:
I’ve run into an interesting question about a coworker’s communication habits. She 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 commented when coworkers are out of the office or not available. Her position and mine are a similar levels.
Building relationships across an organization through personal interactions is undeniably a good thing. However, I think this person is actually making enemies with the frequency of her visits by communicating a lack of trust, and forcing coworkers to drop everything to attend to her requests. Her visits are pretty much all business. However, I suppose they are effective in that she gets a quick response. What do you think? Am I just over-thinking this behavior?
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, 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 (or talking something through, or whatever), 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 it’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 here.)
I should also note that you don’t have to be 100% rigid about it. For the sake of being nice, you can occasionally allow one of these interruptions — but you should at least refuse more of them than you allow, because she’s shown that she won’t respect your time on her own and therefore needs boundaries demonstrated.
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.