how can I make my boss stop talking to me when I’m trying to work?

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!

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

Also, a note about my articles at Inc.: If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on in order to continue to exist.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Grey*

    “She’s lacking something pretty in a manager” doesn’t sound right to me. Is that missing a word, or am I interpreting it the wrong way?

  2. Sunshine Brite*

    This is good. Reminds me of what I would’ve needed to do if I was actually housed with one of the supervisors in my area. She’s only somewhat chatty, but VERY loud. She knows it but finds it difficult especially with the open floorplan to maintain a quiet tone. She does try to put herself in an office and close the door but dang, you can still hear her if you’re in the same office. When I was a new hire and in-office more, the other new hire and I kept going back and forth about what to do about it with the power dynamics in play until my supervisor showed up, told the other supervisor to quiet down, and told us that the offending supervisor knows she’s loud and wouldn’t get mad if we told her so.

  3. INTP*

    I think that beyond the chit-chat issue, this question hints at a problem that I’ve seen a lot in managers – the fact that because they don’t mind working at home/long hours, the rest of the employees shouldn’t either, whether that’s to accommodate their need to chat all day or start projects on a whim at 4:30 in the afternoon or resolve things over email after hours or procrastinate all week and come in on Saturday or whatever other quirk of their working style. It can be difficult to explain that you need to have that boundary between work time and home time without making such managers question your worth ethic or passion for your work, as well.

    In this case, I like the approach of pointing out that it is detrimental to the OP’s own ability to concentrate – the “it’s me, not you” conversation, and also having an up-front conversation about it to warn the boss that you’ll be trying to avoid chatting, when feelings will be less delicate while you’re actively rejecting her conversation.

    1. Lisa*

      My office is culturally like that. It’s expected of everyone and we try to hire only people who thrive on that… I try to make it very clear in interviews what people are signing on for.

      1. INTP*

        If it’s an office-wide thing and you make it clear up front then that’s totally fair. Unfortunately I’ve had that experience with people that think it should just be everyone’s default, not a personal or office culture quirk that they should mention when looking for compatible employees. Or they gradually become that way when their home life goes sour and they start to use work as an escape.

  4. TootsNYC*

    Oh, thank God this was from years ago. For a minute I thought it as one of my team.

    Kidding! I’m not that bad, actually but I do have to be careful, because I’m chatty.

  5. Person of Interest*

    I wonder if some kind of visual cue on her desk would a be useful signal/reminder to the boss. We do something like this in our office – green sign means says I’m okay to chat, yellow sign means you can only interrupt me for something mission-critical or needs immediate response, red sign says please don’t talk to me now, I’m on deadline. It’s a little pointed and not perfectly implemented, but mostly works.

  6. Dez*

    Ultimately I would recommend continuing to violate company policy regarding headphones. If her boss gets angry regarding chit chat rejection she could potentially use this against her especially if it is documented as an issue. Possibly a boss above her current boss would see in person or documentation. Either way seems a safer bet to not be labeled as not adhering to company policies regardless of the issue.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes — see the note in my post that explains this. If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on in order to continue to exist.

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