I can hear everything my staff says — should I pretend I don’t?

A reader writes:

I’m the executive director of a small nonprofit, leading a team of six full-time staff and a handful of part-timers and volunteers. Our office is mostly open-plan, but two of us have private offices with doors to the larger area that are almost always kept open. Since it’s a small team, our duties mesh and intersect in most of what we do. Now, my question: Due to the acoustic properties of the office space and my over-acute hearing, I can hear virtually every word that is spoken by the other staff members. I’ll usually refrain from commenting on what I’ve heard, with the expectation that if it’s something that I need to be brought in on, I will be.

Sometimes, though, I’ll come out of my office to engage one or more staff members based on a phone or in-person conversation that I’ve overheard. Usually I do this when I have information or perspective that seems important to the topic at hand. Is this a creepy thing to do? Should I refrain from getting involved in conversations that weren’t “mine” to begin with, and wait to be brought into the conversation if a staff member chooses — act as though I hadn’t overheard? We maintain a professional but friendly and informal atmosphere/culture. I haven’t been aware of my over-hearing causing discomfort, but since I’m the manager, I’m not sure I’d know if it were.

It’s really tempting as a manager to have opinions on almost everything and to want to share them — especially when your office is set up in a way where you’re hearing everything that goes on! But there’s real value in holding back. If you don’t hold back, you can end up with employees who feel micromanaged, and in the long-term that leads to people not taking initiative or trying to solve problems themselves and getting less invested in their work, and generally being less effective/happy/productive. So the art is in knowing when to step in and when to stay out of it. It’s the difference between managing only for short-term outcomes (where you just need this project done well right now) and managing for long-term ones (where you need people doing their jobs well over time), and it can be hard!

In your case, I think it depends on how often you’re commenting on something you overhear. If it’s happening daily, then yeah, it’s going to make people think that they’re being scrutinized and have no privacy, and that’s an unpleasant way to work. If it’s occasional and it’s about stuff that really matters, then it’s probably fine. But of course the question is, what’s occasional? In some cases, once or twice a week would be fine — if it’s things like “I heard you trying to find the Jones file, and it’s actually on my desk.” But if it’s more like “It would be more effective to tell the client points A and B,” doing that a couple of times a week is going to feel like a lot to your employees. That’s where they’re likely to feel like you’re not giving them room to do their jobs, and that everything they say is being scrutinized.

This is tricky, though, because that still might be important feedback for you to give! And if you’re seeing important things that need to be corrected, or perspectives that need to be shifted/expanded, or skills that need to be built, you can’t ignore that just because you weren’t actually meant to overhear. That stuff still matters, and as a manager you might need to act on it. If that’s the case, when you have the option to do this, look for other ways to address those things rather than making a habit of interjecting in the moment every time. It’s okay to let the information you overhear inform your thinking about where you might need to give clearer guidance, or coach someone generally, or clarify how you want people approaching things, but that’s different than addressing it right there on the spot.

That doesn’t mean that you should never jump in if something is important or if you can save someone a lot of time. It’s just about bringing a judicious lens to it, and being aware of potential trade-offs.

It also might be worth investing in a white noise machine for your office. Probably everyone would end up feeling better.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. HS Teacher*

    I appreciate the OP asking for advice about this. I had a boss who used to do it, and it drove me absolutely crazy. It felt like you couldn’t have a conversation or a phone call in the office without him chiming in on it. I say trust that your employees will come to you when they feel you need to be brought in on something, unless it’s so egregious you have to intercede immediately.

    1. Just Peachy*

      Totally agree! I had a supervisor that would often come out of her office and interrupt me during phone conversations saying, “you need to tell them x/y/z” or, “Did they say X? Don’t tell them Y!” Not to mention, her advice was more times than not incorrect, since she wasn’t hearing the other side of the conversation. It also made it difficult to hear what the caller was saying when my supervisor was talking loudly into my other ear.

      1. Minnie*

        I used to have a boss that did this when I was on the phone with clients. He would holler from his office to say this or that. It was incredibly distracting, and I would often have to ask the clients to repeat what they said.

        Finally, one day I put the call on hold, walked to his office and asked if he wanted to handle the call.

        He studderred and turned red, and told me no. Needless to say, that put a stop to his intrusive, overbearing ways!

      2. HS Teacher*

        With mine, I could hear him stomping down the hall to interrupt us. He was probably the worst boss I ever worked for, compounded by the fact that he owned the company, so there was no one to complain to about him!

        1. Minnie*

          Ugh, that would drive me batty!!

          My boss was the owner. He was actually a very sweet man, but the eavesdropping was out of control. He never heard the other end of the conversation, so his hollering from down the hall was a weird, invasive quirk. I always went to him if I was in doubt, which made his presumptuous behavior bizarre. I worked for him for several years and left for another job.

          It sounds like you worked for a tyrant!

    2. k.k*

      I’ve also been on the receiving end of this. It was most annoying when we’d just be brainstorming and boss pops up to comment as if that was our finalized idea. You just want to say, “Shoo! This isn’t for you yet!” So very much agree that employees will come to you when the time is right.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Hahaha, this! I hate manager interference during brainstorming/sharing an incomplete project.

        I edit videos and often have coworkers that want a sneak preview of their “guest appearances” in the videos – our manager like to pops out when they realize we’re watching it… and then comments on things I haven’t worked on yet (YES, I know there’s no music yet and I should add graphics to make it more appealing, I just haven’t got to it yet. When I have ever turned anything in without those things?!).

    3. Rae*

      Being on the receiving end of this was one of the contributing factors in me leaving my job. Autonomy is important. I will ask for help if I need it, and in return I expect not to be micro-managed. My old boss would overhear conversations and butt in and it had the following effects:

      * When someone asked me a question and he interrupted to answer it, it made me feel powerless and made it look like I didn’t know the answer.
      * He often got the wrong end of the stick and wasted time because we’d have to listen to him and then explain why his input wasn’t relevant.
      * He’d answer things for me that I already knew.
      * I wouldn’t have opportunity to find out things from my colleagues because he’d answer everything.

      I don’t think the OP is quite at this level, but I hope the OP doesn’t get worse and end up there! Wanting to help is definitely a great thing, I think it’s just important to find the balance between helping and interfering.

      1. HS Teacher*

        The answering things I already know is the part that makes me the most stabby. Trust your freaking employees, especially if you’re the one who hired them.

    4. SunshineOH*

      I was a manager in a VERY open office for a few years… It’s hard from that side, too. You want to help your team and guide them through their challenges, but I had to get used to NOT interfering and letting them learn how to figure things out. It became a habit for them to look at me for everything because I was right there. Looking back, I know it stunted some of their development.

  2. CM*

    I think in general, pretend like you didn’t hear and refrain from commenting on individual conversations that you’re not a part of. But during a time when you’re normally giving feedback to your team, like during a 1-on-1, you can address any issues then at a higher level.

    1. Yvette*

      I think it might be ok to comment or join in a conversation if it is pertinent and work related and if you were obviously in a position to overhear. In the elevator, the breakroom, if it is going on right in front of you etc.
      I would avoid chiming in on phone calls unless it is very important, and then, only if you were obviously in a position where you could not help but overhear.

  3. Penny*

    One of my former supervisors would overhear my phone conversations and then come over and whisper things I should say while I was still on the phone. It. Drove. Me. Crazy. Finally one day I kind of snapped and told her that I can’t concentrate on the phone when she’s talking in my ear and she backed off after that.

    I really hope you’re not doing that, OP!

    1. Curious Cat*

      Whoa, what?? They would whisper in your ear while you were talking on the phone? That would seriously frustrate me, glad you got her to stop doing that. It doesn’t sound like OP is doing that with their employees, thankfully, but yikes talk about micromanaging.

      1. Squeeble*

        Ha, yeah, I hate when people do that. I’m always tempted to just hand the phone to them with an air of “if you’ve got so much to say, go ahead.”

    2. Cheryl Blossom*

      My supervisor does this! It drives me up the wall!

      I work at the front desk; a huge part of my job is answering the phone. I can’t do that if he is standing over me and going “what do they need?” “what’s the issue?” It just makes everything confusing!

    3. MicroManagered*

      My current manager was doing this for a while. We sit right by each other, and she would interject over the wall when I was on the phone or send me IMs to interject, sometimes both at the same time. Sometimes she’d even come stand behind me! I found myself really getting resentful and feeling like I had no privacy. (I don’t–we’re all in open cubicles but we at least try to pretend and give each other space).

      During our one-on-one, when she asked me if there’s anything I need from her, I channeled my inner-AAM and said “Actually, there is. There have been a few times recently when I’m on the phone and you try to tell me things or send me instant messages about my call. Like on Friday when I was talking to Fergus about the Teapot. I know we can all hear each other, but it really throws me off my game when I’m trying to hear the caller and get my head around what you’re saying. Can we try talking after my call if you have something to add? Even if I’ve given someone bad info, I would rather call them back than to try to have two conversations at once.” It worked! She actually stopped doing it!

  4. Squeeble*

    Does your staff know you can hear everything? I’d want to know, regardless of whether you jump into those conversations or not.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Agree, OP, I think I would find a way to bring this up, so people don’t feel like you’re deliberately spying when the fact is that the setup just makes it easy to overhear almost everything.

      1. Big Ears*

        OP here…yes, they know that I can hear what’s going on, and I don’t think they feel spied on. I haven’t had the sense that their conversations were inhibited by that knowledge, but I might not know if it were.

        1. Legal Beagle*

          If you have the ability to set this up, it would be nice for the employees to have a private space for longer phone calls or one-on-one meetings. It would irk me to know that my boss has one ear out for everything I’m saying all day long. I work in a cubicle area with other people at my level, and all the bosses are in offices with doors. There’s an empty office that I use for conference calls, because I’d rather have privacy and quiet when I’m leading a 2-hour call with 15 people on the line. I’m sure my coworkers appreciate it, as well.

          1. HS Teacher*

            That’s a good idea. When I was a manager, in a past life, I could hear the front desk from my office, even with my door closed. I started to just play music in my office. It’s not that I didn’t care what was happening, but I found it to be distracting. The music wasn’t loud enough to annoy others and helped me focus on my work.

  5. animaniactoo*

    I think it’s valuable to be upfront with your team too about *how* you’re hearing the info. Because the goal is for them to feel like this is an accident that you can’t help, and not that you are purposely attempting to gain the information.

    So I would casually say something, in passing, along the lines of continually being surprised by the acoustics of the space and how much you end up hearing when you’re trying to work.

    You may lose some valuable info-gathering, but you’ll gain a lot in trust and respect and it’s likely that they’ll more or less “forget” how much you can hear pretty frequently. So as long as you make good your end not to step in about it too often, they’ll see you honoring the boundaries between what you should act on and what you shouldn’t and you’ll still end up hearing a lot of it anyway. Because they won’t much care. Except when they want to grumble about you and make sure to take it over somewhere else – which, frankly, can be a very good thing in terms of peoples ability to cope and managing their own stress and working things out before saying anything, and so on.

  6. JEM*

    If it were me, I’d come at it from the perspective of, “if I hadn’t known this was going on and found out later, would it bother me that no one had brought me in on it?”

    If yes, find a way to address it. If no, you’re only going to make your employees feel micromanaged–and probably stress yourself out in the long run.

  7. Lora*

    Hopefully the acoustics don’t go the other way when you need to have a private conversation.

    Although I always appreciated the involuntary heads-up about impending layoffs and re-orgs when I sat outside the director’s office, so…

    It’s kind of nice to maintain the relationship with your people that they can yell through the wall when they have something to tell you, though. It’s a tricky line to walk, teaching people what they should bring to you and what they should handle themselves.

    1. Big Ears*

      OP here — my office has a door, which I close for private conversations. I do leave it open the rest of the time, and don’t mind other staff overhearing most of what I’m up to.

      1. Lala*

        It might be good to consider whether they mind hearing most of what you’re up to while your door is open. At two different workplaces, I ended up in the spot nearest my boss’s office. The one who didn’t keep their door closed/mostly closed most of the time was really distracting.

      2. Lora*

        The way I decide if I want to jump in on something is, “do I want to have to give orders on this subject or at this level of detail, ever again if I don’t absolutely have to?”

        Mostly no, no I don’t. I might revise my general training plans or project descriptions in a different direction if I overhear about an unexpected pothole they can’t work out amongst themselves, but even so, I usually want people to try to figure it out before they come to me.

        At some point you will want people working for you to be well trained and know how to do things on their own; you will want to perhaps move up or sideways yourself. You will want a succession plan. Every time you jump in to save the day, you are pushing that future further away.

  8. DCompliance*

    If you are finding trends where you have information to share based on what you are hearing, can you share the helpful information in proactive way? For example, if you are hearing your team consistently struggling to troubleshoot a situation, can you get a script together on how it should be handled and share it in an email or meeting? Then you are not having these one off conversations.

  9. GriefBacon*

    I had a really similar situation at my last job/building — I sat in a “pod” (really just a large room off the hallway) with 5 other people. Our supervisor’s office was across the hall, and unless she was in a meeting, always kept her door open. It was a super old building, so sound carried all over the place. There were numerous occasions when my boss would overhear something we were discussing and would pop in to give us pertinent information/correct a wrong assumption/help us figure something out. She was always apologetic and almost sheepish about overhearing/interrupting — she was generally a very sweet and considerate person. I didn’t mind it at all, and neither did any of my coworkers.

    That said, she didn’t do it on anything personal/social, and it was always with information/answers that we truly needed. And it was never “unsolicited” — in that, it was always after one of had said something along the lines of “I wonder if XYZ” or “we should find out XYZ”. And it was always a good reminder that she could hear our conversations! I think it really depends on the relationship you have with your employees though. If I hadn’t felt like my boss wanted me to succeed and trusted me and was on my side, her popping in would have driven me CRAZY.

  10. Construction Safety*

    Oy, I’m at the end of and L-shaped corridor. I can hear every detail of every convo from reception to my office.
    It’s about the only way I find out anything good, so I keep my mouth shut.

  11. Lil Fidget*

    This makes me realize I need to watch this in my own office. We have an open set up and I always hear my boss talking, often mentioning me by name in conversations while standing two feet away from me – I often look up, and sometimes come over and listen quietly, and sometimes join in. There’s probably a line around this that I should watch out for. I remember feeling awkward about it in the beginning but nobody ever seemed to mind and sometimes thanked me or otherwise welcomed me into the conversation – but I may have gotten too comfortable.

    1. JessaB*

      I think there’s a difference when it’s an open area and you can hear your own name. That’s not quite the same as just acting on anything you hear.

  12. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Yeah…..I think it depends. I am not management, but I can overhear all the conversations in our cube farm. Because I am the only one in my department, there is so much misinformation. But, normally, I don’t say anything and let them carry on. I’ll chime in if what they’re saying is so bonkers wrong that it will end up causing problems for me(and, in the long run, their projects). Also, I’ll pipe up if it’s clear a visit to my desk/IM/email is imminent because they’re wondering out loud.

  13. Artemesia*

    I would not even indicate to staff you can hear everything and use this circumstance to know you have a finger on the pulse. If something seems like it does need your intervention then instead of butting in having heard, you could touch base on the project a bit later and review how it is going and provide feedback then. Consider it a superpower that helps you manage but avoid jumping in on what you overhear except in a way that doesn’t seem to be doing that.

  14. BRR*

    What a great question and I don’t remember it being asked before. I call this forced eavesdropping. You’re not trying to listen but you literally cannot prevent hearing what you hear. In my experience, it has been dependent on office culture. In a previous job, you were never to say anything even if you overhear something you can help with. In my current job, you can more or less interject whenever you can be useful. My situations have not been as a manager though and I think it’s really important to avoid micromanaging as Alison says.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      This is a good point too – I think the amount you can do it also depends on the office culture. My previous office was one were you basically pretended you never overheard anyone, and my current office has people jumping into conversations all over.

      (either way,the examples of “bad times to jump in”/ “daily would get annoying” from Alison still hold! But beyond that, it depends on office culture, I think)

    2. Emma*

      Definitely a culture thing! I was looking at that – “more than once a day” and that’s miles from how my current offices work!

      My direct manager at job #3 works in the same open office as the rest of the team, and if she doesn’t join in a conversation at least a few times an hour, that’s when you know she’s concentrating on something truly ballsed up. We all talk about the work we’re doing, partly to coordinate and avoid duplication, and partly because we all do everything and regularly need to draw on each others’ skills and knowledge. Since the manager can hear us, and has a selection of skills and knowledge herself, not to mention the authority to make out of policy decisions, it’d be really weird if she didn’t join in.

      When I wind up doing my hour of penance in the other office, the setup is as LW describes – an open office with one private office attached, the door of which is usually open. In that office people are more focused on their individual tasks rather than always collaborating, so conversations aren’t nearly as constant, but even there I’d find it weird if the seniors didn’t speak up when they have something useful to contribute.

      I guess the difference maybe is about whether you’re contributing to the conversation, or delivering feedback. I wouldn’t expect to get random feedback throughout my day in this way – we have systems in place for checking work and I’d expect them to be used, unless I’m really screwing up. And all the people commenting about managers who try to tell you what you say when you’re on the phone… ugh *shudders* (today was actually the first time a manager has commented on a phone conversation they’ve heard half of, for me – to say that I handled it well. Which was great feedback! But it still threw me a bit). But if a manager hears me trying to figure something out with a coworker and not getting anywhere, or has a better idea of how to handle something than what I’m discussing, I’d expect them to say so just as much as I would a peer.

  15. AlwhoisthatAl*

    The simple question to ask yourself – Would you like someone doing it to you ? Anything you say being listened to and possibly brought up later ?

  16. beanie beans*

    I have a coworker who jumps into every conversation I have with anyone else who drops by my cubicle for a question. I think it’s just because he knows the answer and wants to help, but it comes off incredibly rude because a lot of times I don’t even get a chance to answer. One time he physically stood in front of me to answer before I could even speak. I called him out on it but he still does it.

    1. beanie beans*

      I guess my point in relation to the question (sorry for the rant!) is, I would try to only jump into conversations when it seems like they are really really struggling to solve it alone, or they are going to run off in a wildly wrong direction. Otherwise you’re risking making your team feel like they can’t problem solve on their own. Or that you don’t trust that they’ll come to you when they need help.

    2. HR Expat*

      I was *that* co-worker early on in my career (I hang my head in shame and apologize profusely). My peer told me too many people were asking him questions and he wished I would help out more, so I thought this was the way to go and management would see me as pro-active. It backfired horribly.

      OP- As I transitioned into HR and leadership roles, I used this experience as a guide to ask myself how I would feel if others did this to me? My advice would be similar to others- only address things if they’re absolutely critical, make sure the team are aware of this, let them know you’re not trying to eavesdrop personally, and let the team raise more minor issues to you during one-on-ones or other team meetings.

  17. Observer*

    I think you should absolutely let people know that you can hear everything – you are not listening, but you can’t help hearing. OCCASIONALLY coming out and helpfully joining a conversation can be a good thing, because it’s a low key way of reminding people. Yes, people are less likely to talk freely, but no one will ever be able to complain that they didn’t know that you (and everyone else, probably) can hear everything they say.

    The key is, as Alison says, is how often you do this, and what your interruptions look like. You’ve gotten some good examples of what NOT to do.

    And, if you DO hear a conversation that you think you need to interrupt, make sure that it really DOES need to be interrupted and then shoot that person an email, text or whatever it is that they are likely to see. You really don’t want to walk over to them and start talking. And it really is pretty rare that you HAVE to interrupt.

  18. SanDiegoSmith82*

    I worked in a small office where we could all hear each other’s conversations- i was sort a senior member and would sometimes have to step into conversations because of seriously incorrect information about my particular area of specialization that was shared with clients. I’m in Commercial Insurance and one those former coworkers had no idea what commercial insurance did and would constantly make things up that I “could do” for them that was never the case.

    I had permission after several discussions the boss had overheard to step in at those moments. The boss did micromanage that particular coworker because of her tendency to snip at clients during phone calls and would constantly butt in. But it was never welcomed or appreciated- even if some of us understood it was all part of her “CYA” (cover your assets) idea to avoid errors and omissions claims.

    My point- don’t be that person unless it’s truly necessary- and if it becomes truly necessary- evaluate that employee…

  19. Teapot librarian*

    I’ll come out of my office to talk to walk-in customers when I overhear our front-desk employee giving incorrect or insufficient information; I’d rather not do it because it demonstrates a lack of trust in the employee, but the person is RIGHT THERE and I can hear them getting less-than-positive customer service. Should I be doing something else?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In a situation where a customer is getting bad info, I think you need to do it. But make sure you’re talking to the employee afterwards to equip them with the right info/figure out how they didn’t know. And if it’s happening a lot, it’s a sign that you either have someone who badly needs more training, or that you may have a performance issue to deal with.

      1. SanDiegoSmith82*

        Exactly! It will always be a problem unless you are willing to educate your staff. You should be able to have a staff you trust- and not have to step in. It’s uncomfortable to have to tell someone they are wrong sometimes, but it can be necessary.

        My suggestion to my former employer about the issue with that coworker was to send her to a basics of commercial insurance class- but said coworker refused to attend claiming “she knew and just forgot” mostly because she didn’t want to have to put effort into changing her kids’ schedule slightly to go to a one day training class. Another reason I left that job- the inmates ran the asylum…

      2. Teapot librarian*

        Thanks. Part of the problem is it’s often one-off situations where more training won’t necessarily help…but there is a broader customer service issue at play that I do need to deal with.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          Your employee needs to know when she doesn’t know the answer, and say so.

          OR your employee needs to learn that a wrong answer now is NOT better than a right answer later.

  20. Zirco*

    I disagree with Allison’s suggestion to install a white noise machine. In my experience, they don’t cover up conversations, since people just talk louder so they can hear each other over the background noise. The net result is that whenever I am at work, I feel like I am on an airplane.

    Am I alone in hating these things? Building managers seem to love them, but for me they are a never ending irritation.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I don’t know that folks talk louder, but white noise is super irritating to me personally. Ugh, I hate it.

    2. LSP*

      I would think the manager should put the white noise machine in her office, to block the sounds drifting in from the main room. It wouldn’t make sense to put one in the main area of the office.

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      White noise machines are for the person who needs to not hear something. Like when you can’t sleep because of neighbors. It’s not meant to muffle the noises.

  21. AwkwardestTurtle*

    I am not a manager but I have the impulse to do this *so much* in our cube farm. It’s particularly tough when you hear someone struggling to find the answer to a question you know off the top of your head. But I realize it gets obnoxious for coworkers so I try *really* hard to wait until they ask for advice than to just shout it out. It definitely takes practice.

    If I’m really struggling I will throw on head phones for a few minutes or try to do whatever I’m working on suuuper carefully to distract my naturally nosy brain.

  22. Heather*

    This is me. My employees know that I can hear them; I’m up front about it during training. I ignore their general conversation, and have gotten pretty good at just registering the tone. If I hear confused or agitated tones, I pay attention and decide if I need to intervene. Maybe that would help?

  23. LizB*

    This is a super relevant letter for me. I have a small shared office right next to another small shared office, and I can pretty much hear everything that happens in there, since they usually have the door open. I can also hear everything that gets discussed in the open seating area just down the hall. I try not to butt in to conversations unless it sounds like my input could REALLY be useful, which usually happens maybe once a week. It’s so tempting to give my input or just chat with people who are having an interesting conversation sometimes, though — I’ll take this post as my reminder that I shouldn’t do that!

  24. Typhon Worker Bee*

    In grad school, my supervisor’s office backed onto our lab space. His door faced the other way though, towards the outer corridor, and any time any of us were in there we were always engaged in lively conversation, so we never really thought about it much. Until, that is, he let one of the postdocs in the lab use his office for a few days while he was away.

    About five minutes after she went in, she came running back around the corner yelling “guys, GUYS! When it’s quiet in Dave’s office, you can hear every. single. word. we say in the lab!”

    We all got quite paranoid about what he might have overheard over the years, and were a lot more careful after that! It probably wasn’t anything really bad – he was an excellent supervisor, still one of my all-time favourites, despite some micro-manager tendencies – but we all get frustrated with the boss sometimes, and he probably overheard a TON of non-work conversations too.

    He’d never once let on that he could hear us, even though we were all really friendly and hung out together after work all the time. I would have appreciated a subtle one-time heads-up, not in an “I’m watching you” way but just to make us aware that voices sometimes carry…

  25. Bea*

    My whole career has been built on constantly listening in. I think the key is to only interject if you hear it going off the rails or someone is visibly concerned about how to proceed.

    My previous team liked me jumping in because it lifted a burden they would be feeling. But only in those cases where they were uncertain or uncomfortable with a situation that they’re not usually tasked with.

    Just getting in the middle to give opinions gets tiresome and meddlesome if they know the next step or have options, they should steer the ship themselves.

  26. in a fog*

    I actually thought my boss wrote this question, except for some differing details and…well…her “selective” hearing. She always seems to hear what’s going on when there’s a discussion involving piece of information she can step in to correct, but on several occasions, there have been loud disagreements between two of her reports that she should have come out to mediate, but on those days, her ears just seem to be plugged up or something!!!

  27. LSP*

    My boss is somehow able to do this to me remotely! She is based on our satellite office, while I am in HQ in another state. I see her in person three or four times a year.

    She has a tendency to give me feedback on emails I send to clients, or on how I run calls, even while she admits that the way I did it was “fine, but…”

    She does it a LOT, and I have been working long enough to recognize the times where what she has said is important feedback, and when it is simply micromanaging. She admits she micromanages me, and that she gives me more feedback than she does her other direct reports (we work more closely on projects than she does with her other direct reports).

    It’s gotten better recently only because our business has grown a lot and her time in stretched too thin for her to spend so much time scrutinizing every email I send. Also, she has realized that at least some clients prefer working with me over her, and she knows enough to just back off and let me deal with them my way, because it seems to be working.

  28. ArtsNerd*

    Really thought was my empoloyer for a minute. [And if so, you’re doing just fine on that balance, Bill.]

    Something I introduced to my office was a Slack account, so if there’s internal venting or chatting that we for whatever reason want to keep secret, we can do so silently and no one is going to monitor them (since I’m the admin of it.)

    On the other side, headphones are a great way to make sure I can’t hear private meetings (which I frequently can, when the door is closed.) So far, our office has been busybody free so it works out pretty well.

    1. Kasia*

      Yeah, my manager can hear everything in our office. We use chat for any conversations we don’t want him to hear.

  29. please*

    There’s a difference between joining a conversation to share facts that others may not be aware of, and joining a conversation to share opinions or steer the conversation a certain way. In general, we should be much more willing to do the former, and much for circumspect about the latter.

  30. Someone else*

    My personal litmus test for this sort of situation is roughly this:
    If your internal monologue when you overhear the overheard is “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Jump in with something like “sorry I just overheard and wanted to clarify…” and correct whatever wrongness they were saying, because presumably in this scenario you’re trying to prevent them from doing something super wrong, or misinforming a client or something that really needs to be caught in the moment.

    If the knee-jerk response to the overheard is less than that, if it’s something you do feel you need to correct or provide more guidance on in general, make a note to bring it up later privately and address it in the later conversation. If doing that feels like it would be overkill, then you’re in “pretend you never heard it” territory.

    Broad categories, but that’s how I think about it.

  31. Big Ears*

    From the OP: Well, I’ve certainly learned about some really egregious behaviors here, and have enjoyed all the stories. Puts my own situation in perspective, which I’m grateful for. Alison, thanks for answering my email, and thanks to all the commenters who put what I do in a useful frame. Lots of food for thought, and I will be thoughtfully modifying my own behavior.

  32. Not So NewReader*

    Late but here goes. I worked in the area my subordinates did. I realized I had to set limits but I could not criticize everything. And I had to enforce any rule I made across the board, this made me think about how much energy I had to put into it and was it worth it.

    Right off the bat, I targeted heavy gossiping and malicious talk. No. We are not going there. What you say at home is your business, but not here and not on the clock. We all have to work together no matter what we think of each other on a personal level. I prioritize this because of the toxic nature of gossiping. It had been a problem and it needed to stop.

    The very next thing was questions. I wanted them to ask questions. (Thier previous boss not so much.) So I encouraged them to ask each other if they were uncomfortable with asking me or couldn’t find me at the moment.

    Then I waited a bit for the next layer of complexity. What types of questions do we save for the supervisor and what can we ask each other? That was a little more difficult to separate out, but we were able to kind of categorize the questions as to who to go to for what.

    Well safety questions worked into the mix, coworker questions and other types of questions started coming out. So this opened up five minute discussions here and there where we would go over these various topics briefly. Things seem to fall together and get to the point where if we overheard each other needing information or facing a dilemma, we would just chime in. They did it to me and I did it to them.
    I think some of it was a function of time and some of it was a function of the tone we used with each other. And a matter of fact, useful statement is less annoying than off-topic, unusable information. If I overheard “We are out of X” and I just interrupted with “X will be here tomorrow”, then that was useful to know and not too annoying.

    If I needed to correct an individual on a performance issue, I spoke to the person privately, never within earshot of others.

  33. Wine not Whine*

    My department is set up in a similar fashion to LW’s (an aisle with a row of low cubes on one side, offices on the other, nothing really to damp down the sound). Everyone can pretty much hear everything.
    We handle it this way:
    If you say it out loud, no one pretends not to hear it.
    If you go physically to someone’s office or cube, you’re understood to be speaking to them specifically but the folks immediately adjacent aren’t felt to be out of line if they have something to contribute.
    If an office-dweller shuts their door (for a meeting or phone call), you do not admit to hearing anything said on the other side of it.
    LW, were I you, I’d bring it out into the open: tell your people that you can’t avoid hearing the general conversation, and ask how comfortable they are with you occasionally speaking up when you have a pertinent comment. Considering that, if you can hear them, they can likely also hear you, they’re probably also feeling the same awkwardness and will be relieved to have everyone operating on the same assumptions.

  34. LessonInWhatNotTodo*

    My former supervisor did this & more. We had individual offices but the walls were thin and nearly useless. She’d stand around corners, or outside closed doors, and listen in – waiting for a chance to chime in. Her stalker tendencies were well-known. A friend who still works there says she does this still – sometimes in plain sight, not even trying to mask it! So weird.

  35. ThatAspie*

    Only halfway on topic, but I tend to respond to conversations others are having, too. I’m not anybody’s boss, though. But if I know something about what they are talking about, or I feel like I could otherwise contribute, I’ll often invite myself in. It used to get me into trouble when I was little (both the “in-trouble-like-you-broke-a-rule” kind and the “in-trouble-like-you’re-in-danger” kind), but then it started to be okay and even encouraged sometimes when I was in High School and beyond. (Opinions were mixed in Middle School). But I wouldn’t do it at work in most circumstances, especially now that one of my job duties includes “the ability to make your mouth shut up and just let the rest of you do the talking”.

Comments are closed.