my coworkers interrupt me no matter what I’m doing — and keep going after I ask them to stop

A reader writes:

I wonder if you could offer me some strategies on communicating my availability to my staff and my colleagues. I work in a small organization of about 25 people. We are a tight knit group and our positive, supportive culture is important and intentional. I was promoted a few years ago to a supervisory role, and I took on managing some of my former colleagues, as well as some very large projects. I did not stop doing the majority of my previous work, something I understood when I accepted the promotion. The owner of our company is rigid, lacking warmth, and one of those linear thinkers who can’t understand that others need to talk through things before arriving at a solution. I am the opposite: people-oriented, approachable, and an abstract and creative thinker. I am also deadline-oriented and produce high quality work. It is my ability to work with the owner AND with the staff that got me promoted. The owner is male and I am female.

Now that I am the official conduit to the owner, the staff, whether they report to me or not, come to me to ask questions, throw around ideas, and chat about their lives. In most respects, this works fine. The owner and I make a good management team and the company is growing. The problem is that my colleagues all think that because they can see me, I am available for whatever they need. Managing them is not my full-time focus (I don’t even directly manage more than half of them). I have mountains of other work I also need to do. Sometimes, I absolutely must put my head down and work.

I am struggling to communicate to them when I am available for help and when I am not. I have tried closing my office door, but they just come in anyway, often without knocking (or knocking and talking simultaneously). I will sit with my back to the closed door when I am on a call with a client, and they still come in to talk to me, just lowering their voices when they see the phone in my hand. They interrupt my meetings with other staff members. They stop me if I walk past their office doors, regardless of whether I am walking to the copier or the bathroom. I have tried indicating that I am not available with phrases like, “Sorry, I am in the middle of something. Let’s chat when I am done” and “I am not available right now, as I am under a deadline. I will be free at 2.” These tactics rarely work. I genuinely don’t know how to tell them that just because I am visible does not mean I am available.

I addressed this with my boss in our last training session, and his response was to “tell them to bugger off.” He can do that, as a man and the owner and because people generally understand that he is a bit terse. If I told my colleagues to bugger off, it would dramatically impact my relationships with them. I need to maintain the open communication and supportive environment that makes this company a great place to work, but I also need to get my work done. I end up working at home more than I think it necessary or healthy. Can you help?

I wrote back and asked, “When you say you can’t talk and they ignore you, what happens? They just keep talking anyway? And when that happens, do you ultimately end up answering their questions because it feels rude not to?” The answer:

Yes, they usually keep talking. One or two will leave but then try to start the conversation again if they see me. They virtually never wait for me to come to them and they balk at setting specific times to chat.

I do sometimes answer their questions, if a client is on hold on the phone or some other time sensitive item, though a large number of those questions are just confirmation that the choice they have already made is the right one. I would say maybe a third of the interruptions garner an answer from me after I have said I don’t have time to talk. I guess I can already see some changes I could make in that regard.

Continuing to talk after someone clearly says “I cannot talk right now” is so rude that it’s sort of impressive that so many people in your office are doing it. (With obvious exceptions, of course. Sometimes you need to override someone’s “I can’t talk” with “there is a fire down the hall” or “the CFO is outside in the nude”).

So it sounds like the culture of your office is part of the problem. If just one or two people were doing this, I’d say you could solve it with a clear, direct conversation with those one or two people. But it’s so widespread that it sounds ingrained in the culture, which makes it harder to tackle.

It also sounds like to some extent you’re inadvertently reinforcing the behavior, because one-third of the time you’re allowing the interruption and answering after you’ve already said you can’t be interrupted then. I get why you’re doing that if something feels time-sensitive, and sometimes that is the right thing to do. You don’t want to be so inflexible that you become a roadblock when you shouldn’t be. So that means that a one-size-fits-all “never accommodate interruptions” policy won’t work, which also makes this harder.

Since trying to address this in the moment when it’s happening hasn’t worked, you need to have a separate, bigger-picture conversation with people about the problem. Normally I’d say to do this one-on-one, but since it sounds like this will be a cultural shift in how your office operates, I might do it with the whole group at a staff meeting. Say something like, “I am finding that I get interrupted with questions so often throughout the day that it’s very difficult to carve out the time I need to focus on my own work. It’s important that people feel they can come to me when they need me, but I need to be able to have uninterrupted time to focus. I’ve got people interrupting me while I’m on phone calls or in meetings, and people continuing to talk after I say it’s not a good time and can’t be interrupted. This isn’t sustainable. So going forward, I need to do things differently. When you see my office door closed, that’s a sign that I’m focusing on a project and can’t be interrupted, so don’t open my door. If I’m on the phone, I need you to wait until I am off before interrupting me. And if you interrupt me at other times and I tell you that I’m busy and can’t talk then, I need you to accept that and not keep talking.”

Then say, “I know these are habits that might be hard to change, but it’s crucial that I be able to do my job. Does anyone foresee any problems with this new system?” You’re asking that because you want to draw out concerns and objections now so you can address them. You want people to say things like, “But what if a client is on the phone?” or “What if I just need you for two seconds?” so that you can explain how you want them handling those situations.

You should also explicitly address people’s balking at setting specific times to talk. Maybe that set-up did work in the past (maybe when the company was smaller?) but it’s not working now, and you can explain that and say it’s a change they’ll need to get used to. That said, it’s also worth finding out what’s behind the balking — do they resist setting times to talk because those times are always too far away (like days away when they need an answer today)? Or is something else going on? If they’re just balking because they don’t like change, that’s a problem — but there might be something real if you dig. And who knows, it’s possible that you’ll realize you need something like “office hours,” where every day from 2:00 – 3:00 (or every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, or whatever you decide) you’re available for drop-by questions.

This isn’t going to entirely solve the problem. You’re going to need to be vigilant about enforcing those boundaries once you’ve set them up. When someone tried to interrupt while you’re on the phone, don’t accommodate that — say, “I am on the phone. I cannot talk now.” And if they keep talking, turn your chair around or otherwise ignore them and continue your conversation. (And if they’re still there a few minutes later, give them a weird look and say, “I’m on the phone, I’ll find you later.”) The same thing with other interruptions — “I cannot talk now,” followed by “as I said, I cannot talk now,” followed by “this is what I was talking about — I need you to leave my office now because this isn’t a time I can be interrupted.”

You’re going to feel rude doing that! But it’s not rude, just assertive. And your coworkers are being so rude that your less assertive responses are wilting under their rudeness. Increased assertiveness is the only way to respond that will work. If you do this consistently for a few weeks, it’s very likely that people will get retrained.

And you have to internalize this: Having a supportive culture with open communication does not mean that you can’t set boundaries on your time. If you were telling everyone in your company “never interrupt me again outside of our scheduled meetings, no matter what,” that would be overly rigid. But that’s not what you’re doing; you’re just asking people to respect “I cannot talk right now, but let’s talk later today,” which is entirely reasonable … and if your colleagues don’t think it is, that’s a flag that something has gone really wrong in your culture — maybe that it’s slid too far into open/supportive at the expense of productivity/effectiveness.

{ 252 comments… read them below }

  1. OlympiasEpiriot

    Love Alison’s answer. Nothing to add except this sounds dreadful, you must be so frustrated, and best of luck.

      1. Indigo a la mode

        She’s so thorough and thoughtful, it’s really amazing. Every situation is unique and she explores every avenue within it. So much better, more relevant, and more fun than many other advice columns!

  2. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow

    I would also add, from personal experience, keeping your previous work duties and managing multiple other people’s other work can be a long-term recipe for disaster. You either become a bad manager or a bad contributor. Especially if you have to start training new people.

    In terms of the interrupting, Allison’s advice is excellent (per usual). I do think that redirecting questions from the people who don’t report to you back to their manager in general might be helpful as well. Because to me that seems like a time suck that you shouldn’t have manage.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein

      That’s what I was thinking.

      In a small company, people have to wear a lot of hats, and it’s not always realistic to have “pure managers.” But even so, you can’t keep piling on new duties indefinitely–and managing people is a duty that consumes a lot of time and energy.

      1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow

        Honestly, the managing and contributing stuff works when you are managing people who don’t really need much in the way of management. And many smaller organizations (in particular) don’t seem to grasp the fact that managing takes time, especially when you are managing more junior staff.

        1. Midlife Tattoos

          This – so very much this. I’ve been in the position of being an individual contributor while supervising new staff, and I nearly lost my mind. I think you can be good at one or the other, but not both.

    2. Dust Bunny

      Was just getting on here to say this: You’re doing two jobs, and you have a boss who is not good at communicating, which is just going to make this worse because everyone knows they can’t come to him for stuff.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        Yes I was thinking this myself. I wonder if OP would actually prefer to push their boss to let them be more of a full-time manager, or whether they would prefer to push to *hire* a full time manager so that OP can do their own contributions. It doesn’t sound like 50/50 is working very well, because it’s turning into 70/70!

  3. Px

    Part of this is the small office problem, but you should talk to some of the other managers and get their support in this. Make sure they reinforce it to THEIR staff that this needs to be followed, and then make sure they set an example too.

    Also,is it good or sustainable for literally everyone to be coming to you? What are the reporting lines like and why aren’t some of these issues being raised to people’s direct managers?

    1. Bagpuss

      I think this is an important point to take into account.
      I wonder whether you are giving people answers when ideally you should be directing them to their own line manager?

      It can feel as though it is quicker and simpler to just reply, especially when you know the answer, but it isn’t great long term as it encourages them to carry on coming to you, not their own manager, and it could also result in the line manager starting to feel that you are not respectful or supportive of them, as well.

      1. EvilQueenRegina

        If the owner really is telling people to bugger off when they interrupt him I wonder if that’s making people think twice about going to him and will go to OP for a better response?

        1. dawbs

          This is where I went.
          Of COURSE you’ll go to the person who allows you to keep talking even after they indicate they are busy.
          And not to the BIG BOSS (who is already intimidating becaue he’s the owner/big boss) who tells people to bugger off and who is hard to talk to.

          So maybe a better line of ‘who to ask what of’ and ‘office hours for owner’ would help too.
          Or maybe more “huh, I’m busy, go as Owner” to make people see that asking owner, even if he says ‘bugger off’ isn’t the end of the world. (assuming that’s actually the case and he’s not an ass who thinks poorly of people when they ask questions–it assumes he’s just terse. If he is, in fact, an ass, that changes things)

          1. Sloan Kittering

            I realized something similar when I became the “office printer go to lady” accidentally. People wouldn’t leave me alone about the printer. I realized I was reinforcing it because … well, I did fix the printer for them at least half the time. I needed to be less helpful so they wouldn’t want to come to me with things. It sucked for us all but we did get there – and the change started with me, not them.

    2. TootsNYC

      Agree.. You need to create a world in which other people can serve as the “reassurance” or “clearance” or “someone to think out loud with.”

      So, empower those managers. and one way you do that is to NOT answer questions that they are capable of answering. Partly because it sends a message that you don’t trust them.
      You may think you’re being accommodating. But you’re not; you’re undermining them, actually.

  4. ENFP

    I had this problem at my former job when I ran a system used by the whole company. People literally followed me into the bathroom for help. Often the phrase “I know you’re busy, but…” preceded their question.

    I found that management was a big part of the problem. Systems and office hours and closed doors were ignored, because managers endorsed the ignoring. I’m also female and the “helping” gene that some believe all women have does not help.

    I think Allison’s advice is perfect – but you have to follow up. Do NOT allow people to interrupt phone calls unless the building is on fire or a colleague has died on the job. Turn your back on people who barge in when you’re on the phone. Refuse to acknowledge cryptic hand signals. You don’t need to apologize for this – polite people do not interrupt and if they do, they should be ignored.

    I suspect you’ve been called “too nice” by some…so show them that you have a backbone!!! Good luck!

    1. Dr. Pepper

      I’m getting that vibe too. The problem sounds systematic, as in not only have you established yourself as the “nice manager” who will answer questions and be helpful, but the rest of management is actively supporting this. Is it just you and the owner the only managers or are there other line managers that *should* be the ones fielding many of these questions? Because if there are other managers, there’s an issue that everyone still comes to you. In addition to announcing your new policy to the staff, you should probably have a manager’s meeting as well because if they don’t support you, it’s going to be much more difficult.

      1. TheBeetsMotel

        In a selfish sense, I kind of get why the rest of management isn’t seeing this as a problem. It’s because if everyone goes to the Nice Manager Who Helps, they can focus on their jobs without being bothered by people!

        Help redistribute the load by being less nice. Less nice doesn’t mean rude! It just means standing up for your time, work and sanity.

        1. Sloan Kittering

          Yes and unfortunately you may find over time that OP gets dinged for not finishing her work, rather than rewarded for helping everybody else finish theirs. Grumpy Chad who keeps his door shut and gets his accounts closed may wind up with your big bonus at the end of the year. Ask me how I know …

          1. Dr. Pepper

            Yeah, unless your job is literally to help everyone else finish their jobs with no real tasks of your own… it’s going to bite you in the butt down the line when your projects suffer because you’ve been too busy helping everyone else.

    2. The other Louis

      Yeah, I also had people follow me into the bathroom. I found five strategies worked: 1) a weekly meeting where people can bring up issues; 2) setting office hours; 3) putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door; 4) saying, “Now is not possible for me,” while ushering them out the door; 5) going to the bathroom on a different floor.

    3. MusicWithRocksInIt

      That’s the thing – if you can only get something done with the ok of Management and it is super hard to get a moment with management then it starts an unhealthy culture of ‘hunting’ someone down. I know when my grandboss is available in his office sometimes a line forms outside because so many people need approval and it is so hard to get. Also sometimes they plan out how to literally corner him. So you want to look at the whole system – how much of this stuff does a manager actually need to weigh in on? How hard is it for the average person to get the amount of time they need? How much of this is urgent or could wait? What could other people do to make things smoother – does another manager need to have office hours? Are there things that could be released from needing a manager’s ok? Figure out if you can delegate some of this.

      1. GreyjoyGardens

        I think this is an excellent point. I’ve experienced the same thing with ticket systems – if someone submits a problem through a ticketing system and it just sits in queue…and sits…and sits, ignored, for weeks, then Hunt Someone Down is the only solution. I believe Alison answered a question like this a while back.

        If micromanagement is the order of the day, and every little thing needs a manager approval, and Other Manager is a snarling meaniepants, then Nice Manager gets inundated. Something’s got to give.

    4. Fact & Fiction

      My literary agent has told stories of people following her into bathrooms at conventions to slip manuscripts under the restroom stalls. I’m pretty sure she’s only partially exaggerating…

  5. President Porpoise

    Push people to use email when it makes sense, too – you can cut down on untimely interruptions that way as well.

    1. Sara without an H

      This. My team handles a lot of routine issues via email, since we all work on slightly different schedules.

      “…the CFO is outside in the nude:” THAT I’d want to be told about ASAP.

      1. Nonny-nonny-non

        At my current company we had to interrupt a manager who was on the phone and telling us to go away with “The police are here to investigate the claim of assault that one member of staff has made against another one”!
        Assault claim was *absurdly* overblown, and I suspect the person that raised it got told firmly so by the officers involved, but I’ve never seen someone get off a call so fast as that manager did then.

        1. Drew

          I was in a meeting with the CEO and the owner of our company when the owner told his assistant quite firmly, “Stop interrupting unless we have an actual emergency.”

          Not three minutes later, assistant interrupts again. The owner was about to raise hell when she said, “I’m letting you know that I’m taking Fergus to the ER because he just dropped a 50-pound box on his foot and thinks it’s broken,” and then left.

          A somewhat long pause followed before the owner said, “OK, that was an emergency. Where were we?”

          1. valentine

            She could’ve left him voicemail. Why does he need to know straightaway about emergencies if he’s not going to act straightaway?

            1. bonkerballs

              That wouldn’t make sense at all in my office. So I think it’s best to assume the assistant knew the best way to reach her boss. For example, any place I’ve ever worked you only get voicemail if you call into the office. Calling between extensions just pages the person’s phone. So with your suggestion, I would have to get my cell phone out, call the office, then answer the office phone and transfer myself into voicemail. Which is ridiculous when I need to take someone to the ER. Also, when my boss is in meetings, she often pokes her head out to ask me to print something to bring in or look up some data point. If she needed me immediately while in her meeting and I wasn’t there, she wouldn’t take the time to check her voicemail. She’d just be annoyed and inconvenienced. Not to mention, she has lots of days when she’s in meetings back to back to back. Again, not going to check her voicemail very quickly.

      1. LKW

        Yes – company culture is to ping someone with “hi – IM?” meaning “Can you IM at this time?” and if the answer is No, you accept it and follow up later.

    2. Observer

      Email , but also some sort of chat / IM tool. I cannot tell you how many times I needed a one or two word answer to a SHORT question where this would have been the ideal way to handle it. What I’ve often wound up doing is walking into someone’s office WRITING the question and let them answer. Obviously that doesn’t work for all situations but for some things it works very well. Especially when the person is not so deep in thought, but is on a conversation that they don’t want to interrupt.

      examples:
      Has the x package shown up yet?
      Are we getting the red or green teapots?
      When are you going home?

    3. Wendy Darling

      At a previous job I had 2 days every week where I had to do a task requiring major focus on a tight deadline, and being interrupted could set me back 10-15 minutes if it was at the wrong moment. I had really good success at diverting people to the internal IM system, which I could just shove to the background and ignore until I was at a good stopping place. I basically trained everyone that those two days a week they were to interrupt me in person only for “something is currently literally on fire”-severity issues.

      I now work on an all-remote team and IMing or emailing with “I have a question about X, can you message me when you have a few minutes to talk?” is standard.

      I think, though, that both of these only work because there was an office culture of not flagrantly ignoring people who told you they were busy.

    4. froodle

      Seconding this and I’d also like to add, this can be a great way to identify knowledge gaps and training needs – if the same people/departments ask the same thing over and over, it flags that maybe a walk through or knowledge base is ended for that team/that aspect of the business.

      Also, and because I am a less generous soul than OP appears to be, if there are some you suspect are being lazy in not trying to work out the answer for themselves, or are trying to palm their work off onto you, forcing them to create a paper trail illustrating that will actually stop some of them, as they don’t want their laziness on record.

  6. So long and thanks for all the fish

    Could you set up explicit office hours, where people can come to you, especially if they just want to chat and throw around ideas? Maybe having a time blocked off for people to do that would help with random drop-ins. You could send out a company-wide email telling them about your new policy “since the company has gotten larger” or some such thing, and/or encourage people with time-sensitive questions to email you.

    Additionally, since the company is growing anyway, could you ask the manager if a new hire could take on some of the work you were doing? Maybe it would make more sense to have you leave behind more of the work you had been doing than he initially thought.

  7. Ladylike

    I’m wondering if there’s some fear at play here. If the owner is terse and dismissive, and people feel they need constant mediation from a third party, is it because they’re dreadfully afraid to approach him, or to make a mistake that will get them into hot water with him? If the whole team is that desperate for immediate answers all day, every day, they’re not empowered to make their own decisions. Something else is going on.

    1. Dragoning

      Yes, they sounds like they fallen into a family-esque dynamic of treating OP like a mother, hoping she will intervene with Dad for them.

    2. Dr. Pepper

      I too am wondering why exactly there are so many questions, and especially reassurances demanded for decisions the employee has already made. Why are so many people asking, “Am I doing this right??” with such fervor that they cannot wait for the OP to finish a phone call or take a bathroom break?

      1. Sara without an H

        I wondered about that, too. Do staff have authority to make decisions within their own areas of responsibility? If not, that needs attention stat.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I get a feeling they haven’t been told about their levels of autonomy. I’ve had to retrain a few people over the years to stop asking certain things and drill into them I trust their instincts.

      1. CM

        They haven’t been told about it or, in practice, they don’t actually have it. The OP wants to not be interrupted when she agrees with the decision the staff members make — it’s worth asking herself if she still doesn’t want to be interrupted when she disagrees with it. Like, what actually happens in practice if someone makes a decision on their own that turns out to be a mistake? If the answer is “We get really mad at them and say they should have asked somebody first” or anything else that expresses a zero tolerance policy for mistakes, then that’s a system where people will always ask you before they decide.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood

      Do staff get *positive* feedback so that they know when they’ve been making good decisions? Or just slammed when they make a bad choice?

      (Alison, I’m still thinking about that podcast where you figured out that the person who “doesn’t take feedback well” wasn’t getting anything EXCEPT negative feedback. It’s been eye-opening in so many ways.)

  8. AnonyNurse

    When we interrupted our mom when we were kids, she’d look up, say “Is there blood or fire?” And go back to her phone call or whatever. Don’t think you can use that with your staff, but you can think it.

    1. jbdesign

      ha, I now freelance from home, and this was my directive to my children on MLK day this week. Too much to do!

    2. ababao1o1

      And then after she finishes her phone call, she goes to the bathroom to find the toilet overflowing.

      1. Wendy Darling

        My mom would say “Blood? Fire? Flood?” and then we’d just walk away shame-faced unless there was actually blood, fire, or a flood.

        I assume the “flood” part was to cover toilets.

          1. Aisling

            You’re being needlessly pedantic. The point of saying that is it makes the kid consider if the request is an emergency before interrupting a parent. My parents always said not to call them at work unless someone was dead, dying, or the house was on fire, but I always understood that to mean “it better be an emergency and not that your sister is annoying you.”

      2. Elaine

        But adults should be able to deal with an overflowing toilet without running to a manager. What would they do if they were at home? They’d deal with it.

        It sounds to me, as others have noted, that this is a situation where grown people are afraid to make any decisions on their own. What is there in the office culture, in addition to a gruff top boss, that contributes to/causes this? That needs to be addressed as well as just trying to prevent constant interruptions.

    3. Elaine

      I think you CAN use that with staff, if they continue to ignore more professional ways of trying to stop the interruptions.

      1. Parenthetically

        I think you can even do something like it pre-emptively, honestly. I think a system where you explicitly say, from 9:30-11:30 and 1:30-3:30 are my focused work times, and if there isn’t a blood or fire related emergency, I need zero people to come into my office or try to snag me in the hall for a “quick question.” Pretend I’m not here for that time. In between those times I’ll catch up on my emails or do other things that require less focused attention and you can drop by.

        It’s A LOT of work for OP but I find my day is a lot more productive when I break it up into segments anyway, so it might work for her as well.

    4. Cambridge Comma

      My manager has a sign that says ‚blood or fire only‘ that she puts on her door when she’s on a deadline.

      1. ababao1o1

        that snark won’t protect you from tsunami, natural gas leak, electrical line down, just off top of my head

            1. ababao1o1

              Don’t post snarky signs that you half expect people to follow , half expect them to “think critically”

        1. NYCCI

          You do understand that not everything is meant to be taken literally, right? I mean, you are capable of extrapolating “emergencies only” and applying that, like a person with some ability to think for themselves, right? Because all these pedantic nitpicking comments suggest you lack basic critical thinking skills.

          1. ababao1o1

            Then the sign should say “emergencies only.” That is simple, adult, and to the point. Does not require snarky phrasing and wordplay

            1. Pibble

              And then people interrupt with things that are emergencies to them but that the boss is fine with handling later. “Blood or fire only” tells people the type of emergency that counts in the boss’ view.

    5. Kimmybear

      I had a job that occasionally required circumventing normal procedures in case of emergencies. My line was “only if someone is dead or bleeding.” Eventually had to be modified to “dead, bleeding, or in jail” but it cut back on the number of emergencies.

  9. Amber Rose

    We have an office where people will chase you down regardless of what’s going on. Typically if someone’s too busy to stop, they just won’t. In one case I managed to grab someone first and someone else was told “Amber is more important than you.”

    If you have that jokey kind of atmosphere and keep your tone light, after you’ve had the serious meeting that Alison suggests, you can probably move to a lighthearted brush off, like “Sorry, too busy! I’ll find you later” and walk away. It’s all about tone of voice. You’re not gonna ruin relationships as long as you aren’t super rude, and as long as you have some warmth and cheerfulness in your voice.

  10. Four lights

    I don’t know what kind of work you do, but I find that most time-sensitive issues can at least wait 15-30 minutes.

    It also sounds like there’s more than one problem here. There’s the overarching issue of everyone interrupting you. I also see an issue with people asking you for confirmation on decisions that maybe they don’t need to that maybe needs to be addressed. You also mention chatting about their lives–I don’t know how much time this takes up, but if 25 people are trying to do this it’s too much. Just because you are able to do this a lot less doesn’t make you less approachable or warm.

    1. Blue

      I also found the “asking for confirmation that I’m making the right decision” thing particularly notable. Why is it that so many people don’t feel confident in the decisions they’re making? If they’ve shown themselves to be reliable, I think OP needs to tell them to stand on their own two feet a bit more.

      Another thing they might think about is whether there are certain people in the office that can be designated experts in particular subjects. In the offices where I’ve worked, there were always mid-level people who specialized in certain things. The expectation is that you’ll go to them before you start escalating to higher-level folks. In my last office, I was the point person for a particular sector of our work. My boss’s time was far more valuable than my own, so staff were instructed to come to me first. If it wasn’t something I could answer, I’d bring it to him, but it meant he was fielding questions from one person instead of 30. He wouldn’t kick someone out if they popped into his office, of course, but because these structures were in place, it was rare for someone to go directly to him unless they’d already discussed the situation with a lower-ranking person and concluded he was the best audience.

      1. TootsNYC

        I found that reassuring people actually reinforced their uncertainty.

        So I switched. When people would ask me, “is this decision I made OK?” I would address ONLY the uncertainty, and never the substance of their question: “You have good instincts; you know your job. You don’t need to ask me this.” And then I’d put my head back down and work.
        But I stopped saying, “That was a good decision.”

  11. Boredatwork

    I find an excellent way to get people to stop (especially if it’s a longer question) is to ask them to put some time on your calendar. Assuming you have office, you can block out your schedule for “heads down time”. The scheduling assistant will help them choose a time that’s good for both of you.

    You can use this after Allison’s excellent speech. It’s a way to, in the moment, say yes, and no. You can cheerfully say “Frank, why don’t you send me a meeting request, and we’ll discuss this later.” If he responds with a yes/no question, you can chose to answer it (or not). If it’s something longer, you can follow with a “hmmm, definitely send me that invite, we’ll discuss later.”

  12. Dragoning

    I would be mortified to completely ignore someone’s cues like that–wow. I tend to preface questions to others at work with “When you have a chance, I—” as quickly as I can ask the question, then proceed with whatever else is on my desk until I have to stop–but usually I have an answer by then.

    So, all this to say: wow your coworkers.

    I have coworkers who will put up signs by their cubes/offices that say “On a Conference Call” when they’re on the phone and cannot be interrupted. And while you need to have a conversation about them ignoring every signal you can, I think signage will help once you do. Habits are hard to break, and they will likely need a reminder. Post a sign by your cube/office with reminders of signals that you’re busy, things that can be routed to someone else, and ways to email you to schedule a time to talk if they need to.

    Perhaps one that says “Please don’t interrupt–Hard at Work Now. Will be available at ((time))” might help?

      1. Dragoning

        My work occasionally needs to interrupt phones calls for urgent things–usually this only happens when we’re all on OT already–we solved this by sticking things on post it notes on the computer in their line of vision.

        1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis

          I have literally had an interrupted day today – I was in the middle of an IM, when the phone rang – despite my “brb”, the IM continued, which was distracting because it flashed on my screen while I was in a separate program answering the question of the person on the phone, and then, while I’m solving phone person’s problem and ignoring the flashing IM, someone came and stood by my desk and started talking at me!
          GAH!
          I’m in an open office too – the post earlier this week just made me cry with recognition, and knowing that even headphones don’t work…

          1. Former Admin Turned Project Manager

            I had a day like that yesterday! I’d been pulled into a huddle room to deal with one issue. only to have my email, IM, and phone (which rings through my laptop as well as at my desk) go off with other questions; all of this was about 20 minutes before I left for the day. Luckily, it all got resolved fairly quickly as I got back to my desk, but I was wiped when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up.

    1. Dr. Pepper

      At this point I’m not too confident a sign would make much difference. Perhaps it would aid the retraining, but when people ignore multiple verbal and nonverbal cues that you can’t talk now, I don’t think a sign is going to the thing that stops them.

        1. Sloan Kittering

          Yes, a sign is not likely to help unless OP is firm in her tone of voice and expression. It sounds like she is struggling with this. You need to channel Captain Janeway or whoever is your role model of power and authority. “I can’t talk to you about this right now, I’m clearly on a call. I’ll come find you when I’m finished. Please don’t interrupt me again.” Be a little frosty, they are the ones being super weird and rude and disrespectful!

  13. GT

    I am the original letter writer. Thank you so much for this Alison and for the feedback from the readers! I really felt like I was losing my mind in feeling constantly imposed upon. Anytime I repeat myself or ask people to leave my office after I said I was unavailable, I feel like I am losing my temper. It is nice to know I can do that without guilt. I love the idea of redirecting people to our owner, if they don’t report to me. I will definitely start doing that, and I will add that to my list of changes when I address this in the next staff meeting (tomorrow!). Unfortunately, there are no other managers besides the owner and myself for the moment, so some of my colleagues who are uncomfortable approaching the owner genuinely don’t have anyone else to ask. I will be handing off some of my original work load once we hit the next growth milestone and can add a position. An assistant for me will be the first requisition we post once that happens. In the meantime, I needed a solution for the immediate. All of you have been so helpful!

    1. Four lights

      If certain people are supposed to work with the owner instead of you, they should. It sounds like he’s terse, but not toxic. They may be uncomfortable, but that’s something that they need to get over and figure out how to work with.

      1. MLB

        This 100%. The ones who are coming to you instead of the owner based on hierarchy need to get over it. That’s not really your problem to deal with unless he’s MIA and something is needed quickly or before the owner will be available.

    2. Lala

      Any chance you could lock your door when you’re on a call/trying to work without interruption? (maybe with a note to email you if something is urgent). They can’t walk in if the door literally won’t open, and after a few times of walking up and finding they *can’t* open the door when it’s shut, they might stop trying to.

      1. Camille

        I was going to suggest this too. If not, in addition to closing the door, maybe put a sign on it that says, Please Do Not Disturb. Sometimes I close my door if I am trying to focus but don’t mind being interrupted so I’ll put a sign that says “Available, Just Knock.” Luckily where I work people are good at respecting closed doors as meaning “do not interrupt.”

        1. Doodle

          That might work, or they might start knocking and not stop.

          Once when I was teaching fulltime, I had my door closed, door blinds down, lights dimmed, no note on the door — I was hiding! to get some work down. Student knocks. I ignore. Student knocks again, louder. I ignore. Student knocks really hard and says, loudly, I know you’re in there. I replied, I know you’re out there. Come back during office hours.

          1. Blue

            Ah, see, when I was working with college students, it was knock, ignore, knock, ignore, student tries the door handle to see if the door’s unlocked. I remain truly baffled at how many times I witnessed that. This is not how knocking works, guys. I tried to help out my colleagues when I saw their students doing this by pointing out, “If they were there *and available,* they would’ve answered. If they’re not expecting you, it’s probably best to email.” Maybe a bunch of them went on to work for OP…

            1. Baby Fishmouth

              Yes I’ve noticed that as well! I work in an open area outside several faculties offices, so the next step after discovering the door is locked is that they turn to me and ask if Professor X is in his office. The conversation usually goes like this:
              Me: Did you knock?
              Student: Yes.
              Me: Did he answer?
              Student: No.
              Me: Then he’s probably not there. Send him an email.

              I mean, good gracious, the critical thinking skills of these students has me wondering about the future of this country.

          2. Dr. Pepper

            Yup. I experienced this too. It’s bizarre but for whatever reason highly common. I think it’s because by the time most students nerve themselves to actually come to their professor’s office, they are bound and determined to see them. It’s an Event, and they’re not about to be daunted by a little thing like a closed door. When from the other side, it’s like “seriously? office hours exist for a reason and so do appointments!!”

            1. Lighthearted Musical Numbers

              I know this is a bit late to the discussion, but I’ve a theory on why students don’t understand the subtlety of a closed door; their parents likely never have. All the student’s life, a closed door is simply a vessel for their parent to knock upon and open without waiting for an answer. Or in some cases, open WITHOUT knocking first. They’ve never been in a setting where a closed door meant anything.

              Its just a theory, though.

      2. Please No More Meetings

        I ended up resorting to this in my office when I need to actually be left to concentrate or am on a phone call. I had (have?) a very similar problem and people seemed to think a closed door and no reply to knocking was to barge on in. After a few times of my calling out, “just a second!” and having people barge in (literally, one guy said, “Oh I wasn’t listening, I assumed you said to come in!”), I started locking my door. It’s not all the time, but it is enough to tell people that a closed door has meaning. My door lock is the enforcer, since apparently manners and social customs mean nothing!

      1. GT

        The owner is terse but not unapproachable. He just has no time for chitchat. Think East Coast “get to the point” mentality. I like the locking my door idea. I will try that when I am really swamped.

        1. Asenath

          Locking the door could be a step into re-setting that part of the office culture to something more like mine – if an office door is closed, you NEVER open it, although you might knock on it in an emergency. I do have a hard time imagining a suitable emergency – a fire is the only one I can think of, and our fire alarm system is very loud so a knock would hardly be needed! A closed door is an office sign that the person inside does not want to be interrupted.

          You can certainly practice NOT responding to people who interrupt you and don’t take “no” for an answer. With practice, I’ve found that I’m good at cutting off phone calls once the initial request is done and the other person is just nattering on. No guilt needed, just something like “Well, I really must go now, nice to be talking to you.”.

        2. Indie

          Door locking worked a charm for a manager I know.

          People start anticipating that something important may happen to make you unavailable and then they start to value the certainty of booked time and set hours for chats.

        3. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

          Seriously do this. I have 3 different shut doors.

          1. Door slightly ajar – Meaning I’m on the phone or busy, but come in. (This is a weird holdover from when I had the only coffee maker in the office located in my personal office- don’t ask long story)
          2. Door shut/Not locked- Doesn’t happen very often, but meaning knock and come in
          3. Door Shut/Locked- If I really don’t want to be disturbed. I only had it happen once that an employee used her key to open my door while I was having a sensitive conversation with another employee. I was not shy on making sure she knew there was never to do that again

          On the general front, yeah, I think you’ve been guilted into being at everyone’s beck and call. Let’s put it this way, you and the owner are at opposite ends of the spectrum*, both sides have their pros and cons. Sounds like he could warm up a bit, and you could get a little more pointy.

          You are going to have retrain everyone, and I think you can put some guidelines around it.

          Brainstorm Bob: He’s the guy that wants to talk things out and use you for a sounding board or get general advice. Tell Bob, that you’re happy to help, but he needs to schedule time. “Bob, that sounds like a pickle you’ve got there. Why don’t you go ahead and put time on our calendars so we can dive in and figure out how to proceed, go ahead and invite Alice and Irma too. Their input would probably help too” Encourage all the BBs to do this and don’t let them turn the ad hoc discussions into full blown mind mapping exercises.

          Avoiding Alice: She’s the one who really should be going to the owner. Give her a pep talk and empower her to take ‘this’ on solo with the owner. “Alice, that’s a great idea. I’m sure the Owner Oscar will love this. Let me know what happens after you tell him”

          Indecision Irma: Irma can’t make a solo decisions to save her soul. Irma may work for you or in another group. Irma needs to be encouraged to make her own decisions. Anything she comes to you with (obviously within her scope) you respond with “Sure that could work, give it a try and see how it works” This will freak Irma right out… but make sure she knows that she can always go back to the other way or try something different if it doesn’t work.

          Chatty Carl: Carl doesn’t really talk about work, instead he’s the one that wants to tell you his minute by minute recap of his dog’s life. Well, he’s the easiest. “Carl, if it’s not about work right now I don’t have time, but if my load lightens this afternoon I’ll come find you to see your vacation pictures” then walk away or go back to what you were doing.

          See how none of those are terse, none are mean. You are still leaving the opening to get involved if you want to or have to. And you are encouraging different paths than you for the employees to work through.

          *Really neither of them are wrong!

          1. MeganK

            These are great!
            I wanted to chime in and mention something really helpful I heard once about boundaries (Brene Brown said it if you want to dig in more): it basically boils down to, having good boundaries that you enforce enables you to be a kind person! If you feel like you’re being trampled on all the time, it’s very hard to extend compassion to others or give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’re making you crazy. Whereas if you set and enforce boundaries, you have the emotional resources to keep a more even keel and cut other people some slack (as well as yourself).

            OP, this was mind-blowing for me, so I thought I’d share in case it resonated or felt helpful to you. I’m still not always great at doing this, but it at least helps me remember why I should.

        4. RUKidding

          Then they will need to adjust and get to the point with him right? It’s work not a Sorority mixer.

    3. The Tin Man

      Glad AAM has been a help! I just want to reaffirm that you can be a supportive, awesome boss and still have boundaries. And it is quite possible that setting boundaries will lead people to be better at finding solutions for themselves and/or working with colleagues for what they need! In that way everyone wins because you get more time and your team gets better at being self-reliant on certain tasks. That is a definite recipe for growth instead of everyone running to you with questions.

    4. ContentWrangler

      I hope you send in an update once you’ve had your team meeting and can tell if people are listening to your totally reasonable requests! Stopping people who insist on talking over you while you’re working on or the phone is not rude. You’re just being respectful of your own time and the time of whoever you’re meeting with/talking to on the phone.

    5. Chantelle

      When you do have the time to reply but ultimately this person should be going to someone else try “What did _______ say when you talked them about this?” I had to do this when items were unnecessarily escalated to me to reinforce what steps should be taken prior to coming to me. I used a genuinely curious tone and would still help when/if I could but it really did help them realize what should be done before coming to me – I think it will address some but definitely not all of what you’re encountering.

    6. Sara without an H

      Hi, GT — Thanks for adding the additional details. If the business is truly growing (congratulations!), you are probably going to have to renegotiate boundaries and processes regularly. Your long-time staff will experience some distress as the organization outgrows their traditional/preferred ways of doing things. Allison’s idea for handling this in staff meetings is a good one, but trust me, it won’t take just one meeting.You can help them cope, but by all means insist that they adapt.

      If you can add some staff so that you can start handing off some of your existing workload, do it — delegation makes life much, much easier and is the hallmark of a good manager.

      You describe yourself as “people-oriented and approachable.” These are fine qualities, but be careful. You’ll experience a lot of internal discomfort as you establish boundaries and teach your staff to respect them. Grit your teeth and persevere — in the long run, they’ll be happier and you will too.

    7. Rusty Shackelford

      Unfortunately, there are no other managers besides the owner and myself for the moment, so some of my colleagues who are uncomfortable approaching the owner genuinely don’t have anyone else to ask.

      This is not your problem to solve. They know exactly who they need to ask. They just don’t want to. And it’s unfortunate, but that does not make it your problem to solve.

      I genuinely don’t know how to tell them that just because I am visible does not mean I am available.

      The thing is, you’ve already trained them to go ahead and interrupt you, because no matter how hard you hint, no matter how often you actually say “I can’t be interrupted,” they interrupt you anyway and they get what they want. So why would they stop? The only way to un-train them is to stop giving them what they want. And that means you have to be what feels like “the bad guy” to you, but I swear upon all that is holy, IT IS NOT BAD to politely deflect these interruptions.

      1. RUKidding

        Agreed.

        And the way OP days “…just because I am visible does not mean I am available…” is to say, “…just because I am visible does not mean I am available.”

        Seriously OP, this is a perfectly valid thing to say.

    8. M from NY

      My suggestion rethink how you have labeled your boss.

      You wrote
      :The owner of our company is rigid, lacking warmth, and one of those linear thinkers who can’t understand that others need to talk through things before arriving at a solution. I am the opposite: people-oriented, approachable, and an abstract and creative thinker. I am also deadline-oriented and produce high quality work”.

      As an owner it’s not your bosses job to let workers talk through a process they already know how to perform. That’s not the best use of his time. Your framing of his boundaries has set you up now to be well liked but internally seething at your coworkers whom you’ve trained to behave this way.

      It’s not mean to set professional boundaries. You have to get comfortable with some people being upset. There’s a difference between approaching supervisor with unique problem and just wanting to be seen.

      Immediate steps:
      1) if you’re on the phone do not ask TELL them to leave. If they return, stop and do not let them continue.

      2) Develop your version of “Is the office on fire? Then please do not return until I call for you.” And stick to it.

      3) For those interrupting you for tasks they already know how to complete call them on it. “Why did you interrupt to ask that?” Then address as appropriate.

      3a) Are you and owner meeting regularly? If so why are his reports coming to you? Ask how he wants these types of questions handled going forward so you’re on same page.

      Self identifying as your bosses opposite has made you take on the fluff conversations he doesn’t. If there is a genuine training or communication problem at start of projects then address that with owner. Write down for yourself what a productive day looks like “for you” then reframe how you deal with the time wasters. I fear bringing it up at staff meeting without concrete action from you will result in tone deaf response (i.e. she wasn’t talking about me). Hiring an assistant without reframing expectations will end up with your assistant being angry.

      This is fixable. Prepare for some pushback and multiple conversations as you and your coworkers adjust to new normal then allow 90 days to see change.

      1. Dr. Pepper

        Yes, I agree with TELLING people what to do. TELL them to leave. It’s an order and it’s not negotiable. Have that mentality when you do it. Give them a Look if they do not obey and don’t be afraid to be firm. It’s ridiculous how rude has become normal in your office and it’s going to take energy to fix it.

        I also agree that you’ve set yourself up- even in your own mind- as your boss’s opposite. Stop that. You’re different from him (and that’s great!) but that doesn’t mean you need to shoulder everything he doesn’t. You can be a management team with him without falling into the Stern Enforcer/Fluffy Bunny dynamic. Figure out how you can be the most efficient team, and remember, what people want and what people *need* isn’t always the same thing. Everyone may *want* to come to you because you’re “nice”, or bounce ideas off you because it makes them feel good, but is this actually the best thing for productivity and efficient running of the company? Is it really *needed*?

        Be prepared for an extinction burst- nobody is going to be happy to lose their nice, lovely sounding board who’s always been so available and so accommodating. But again, what they want isn’t necessarily what they need in a manager.

        1. Bee

          I’d also add: this is definitely what the owner said when he told you to “tell them to bugger off.” He almost certainly did not mean to say those exact words, but he was giving you permission to be firm and explicit that they need to leave. “I can’t talk right now,” “That needs to wait until I’m off this call,” “I’ll be done with this in an hour, come back then.”

      2. RUKidding

        Talking through a process they already know how to do is not a good use of OP’s time either. OP if they know how to do it tell them to do it, period. You do not have to be their sounding board.

    9. pcake

      If an employee’s problem isn’t urgently time sensitive, and they’re your report, I’d give them a time to come and talk with me. If they continued talking, I would say firmly “Stop. I am working on something now, and we can talk about your issue at 1 o’clock (or whatever time you have designated them)”.

      If they’re interrupting a phone call or meeting, unless they’re there to tell you the building is on fire, I would again say a firm “Stop”. If needed, I’d point out that I am on the phone and would talk to them when I was done.

      And most important, unless someone has an urgent problem, don’t answer their questions or help them till they show up at the designated time. There really aren’t that many issues that can’t wait 20 minutes unless you work in a hospital emergency room.

    10. Lynn Marie

      Repeating yourself may feel rude, but lots of people do not hear it the first time. If you have kids you know that often you have to patiently say the same thing several times before it sinks in – adults are not so different in this respect sometimes. As long as your tone remains neutral, go ahead and repeat.

      1. TootsNYC

        Also–I think it’s most powerful if you repeat the exact same phrase. Copy and paste.

        That will focus their attention on the fact that this is not a dialogue or a back-and-forth. And it will also highlight that they’re ignoring you.

    11. A Very Smart Airhead

      This might sound passive-aggressive to some, but I’ve had similar problems with constant interruptions and the added difficulty of a neurological condition that means interruptions often completely derail my attention to what I’m working on. I bought three different doorknob hangers on Etsy (so they’d look nicer than a sign slapped on my door). They say “Please Come In,” “In a Meeting,” and “Privacy Please.” (I admit I use “In a Meeting” at times when I really just need people to leave me alone, I feel weird using the privacy please one, but it came in the set, ha.) They work most of the time. There’s a window by my door and I see people walk up, see the sign, and walk away. (And wow, no catastrophes have resulted.) And for balance, having the “Please Come In” there shows that I’m not completely shutting myself off, just when I am really trying to focus and get something done. (I almost always have my door closed because I work in a noisy area, though.)

      1. bonkerballs

        I work with someone with a sign that say “working hard” on one side and “hardly working” on the other. We all know when “working hard” is up, we don’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency or to let him know his next appointment has arrive. When it’s “hardly working” we’re free to interrupt.

    12. TootsNYC

      If you’re the number two, I think you can designate some people to be “the Answer Person for procedure X.” So any queries about procedure X go to them; if people are unsure or want to think out loud, and it’s procedure X related, they go to Fergus.
      Make sure YOU go to Fergus if you think something on procedure X should change. And encourage Fergus to think about ways to improve or codify or train people on procedure X.

      That doesn’t make Fergus a manager, but it gives Fergus some authority, and it moves tasks to him.

    13. Curiouser and Curiouser

      I think, in this situation, even though you may be able to answer the question…if they should be asking the owner instead, there’s nothing wrong with directing them to do so. “That sounds like more of a question for Bob, have you checked with him?” would be my advice, and hopefully it will guide people to doing it more often. Good luck!!

    14. BuildMeUp

      GT, this sounds so frustrating! You’ve gotten a lot of great advice in Alison’s response and in the comments.

      One thing that I don’t think has been suggested is a specific tactic for when people are stopping you as you walk past their office doors. It might be a little tough to retrain yourself, but the best thing to do in a situation like this is to keep walking.

      Don’t stop. Keep walking, call out something over your shoulder (“Can’t chat now, shoot me an email!”) in a cheerful tone, and continue on to your destination. Do the same thing on your way back.

    15. Marthooh

      Tell these people to bugger off, GT! It will dramatically impact your relationships with them, and that needs to happen. Once they figure out you’re no longer willing to play Good Old Mom to the boss’s Grumpy Dad, you can tell them that you are available to talk to them whenever you’re wearing your red-and-white-striped beanie copter, or whatever.

      I’m glad you’re going to be getting an assistant, but the way you interact with your reports has to change now, while everyone’s still getting used to the changes in management. And yes, if they need to bring something up with Grumpy Dad, tell them so.

    16. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Just saw this!
      He signs their checks, they need to be adults and speak to him, he’s their boss! You aren’t their mom. Oh no, daddy isn’t as niiiiiiice…nope get outta here, junior!!

    17. Soupspoon McGee

      What would happen if you DID lose your temper? I don’t mean name calling and nastiness, but visibly showing repeat offenders that they are overstepping.

  14. Lena Clare

    This would absolutely drive me crazy! I’m feeling agitated thinking about it and it’s not even affecting me…

  15. jbdesign

    Maybe this is already going on, but I’d suggest setting up monthly (or more often) one-on-one meetings with everyone who reports to you (and have your fellow manager do the same). This may initially seem like something that will give you *less* time to work on projects, but eventually it will help cut down on the random sit downs. Make sure the one-on-ones are for both personal and work issues (basically allow them a brain-dump). Then start reinforcing, when they come by with a random idea/story, if possible, ask if it can wait till their one-on-one. As time goes on, people will save up their concerns when they know they have scheduled, dedicated time with you. Good luck!

    1. GT

      Thanks! I have monthly one-on-ones with the most junior staff, and all of my direct reports send me weekly status updates on their projects. Maybe I need to go back to private sit downs with all of my reports. Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        How many people report to you directly right now? (And if some of those junior staff who you’re meeting with monthly don’t report to you, why are you doing monthly one on one’s with them? That’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.)

        1. GT

          I have eleven direct reports. Three of them are the junior staff (two years or less) and I meed with them once a month for an hour. My other eight direct reports only submit written progress reports on their projects. I do not have one-on-one meetings or gather weekly reports from the other 12 employees in the company, but neither does the owner.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            11 direct reports is more than managers can generally handle and still manage well. 6-7 is usually the max you manage effectively.

            You really do need to have one-on-one’s with everyone you manage; weekly written reports aren’t going to allow you to do the actual work of managing (checking in on progress, talking over roadblocks, giving feedback, etc.).

            I would look at ways to manage fewer people (which might mean a layer of management between you and them, either now or down the road when it’s more practical), and use one-on-ones as a place to steer some of these interruptions (“let’s save that for when we meet on Thursday”). It’s no surprise that you’re getting constant interruptions when there aren’t regular meetings for people to have the interactions they need to have with you! They have no set place where they know they can get answers from you.

            (That’s only part of the problem, of course. But it does sound like a part of it.)

      2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

        This sounds a little backwards to me.

        Wouldn’t your managers (direct reports) be having 1:1s with you and in turn be having 1:1s with their direct reports?

        It sounds like you may be circumventing you manager’s relationships with their reports. Are the Jr employees going first to their managers (your DRs) with their questions/issues/problems or they coming straight to you?

      3. Lily Rowan

        Yeah, if people don’t have a specific time to sit down with you, they definitely need to pop by! It wouldn’t solve everything, but a weekly half-hour check-in might help.

    2. Turquoisecow

      Yeah, I was going to suggest this as well. If people are constantly running in to you with non-urgent questions, maybe having regular meetings scheduled can help that by encouraging people to wait until their scheduled meeting to discuss non-urgent things.

      If you have a lot of reports this might be kind of time-consuming, but it’s also a way to reinforce to each person that they shouldn’t interrupt. Also, maybe some people will only need a half-hour or 15 minutes a week, while others might need an hour.

      I worked for a woman who was quite literally in meetings from 8-5 most days, so if you saw her in her office, you jumped at the chance to talk to her, and as a result, she did most of her actual work after most people had left. Maybe there is a similar situation here, in that you’re so busy all the time that people flag you down when they see you because they might not have another opportunity for a while. Scheduled meetings might help with that.

  16. Rezia

    One thing that will feel unnatural, but I think may be critical to reinforcing this, is not answering their question even if they’ve squeezed it in.

    “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
    “No, my door was closed, I’ve asked you to respect that”
    “But it’s really fast”
    “As I said, my door was closed, I need you to respect that as we’ve previously discussed.”
    “But just what day is this due?”
    “I’m sorry, I can’t answer this now, I’ll come find you when I’m finished with my work here.”

    This might feel extreme but I think it’s so ingrained in your company’s culture that you may have to have this hard-line a response for a while, to retrain people. Once people learn, then you can choose to relax your standard on a case by case basis.

    1. fposte

      I would even shorten those subsequent repetitions. You turn back to your work so you’re not looking at them and say “Nope, sorry. Talk to you at three! Please close the door.” And then you stop answering.

    2. pony tailed wonder

      I was rewatching some Supernanny episodes on youtube and she had some advice for a mom with a 3 year old that was too wild for time out because of his impulsivity. She said for bedtimes if they get back up, put them back to bed with a short sentence like “It’s bedtime darling”. When they come out a second time, say “bedtime” and put them back to bed. The third time, say nothing and put them back to bed and each time after that, no words just put them back in bed with no emotion and walk away. Perhaps the one sentence, then one word, and then silence will work with interruptions?

  17. Rather be a Hammer

    What happened to email? Does no one here know how to compose, send and wait for a response on email? Sounds to me like this is a company of non-planners who are always sliding into a deadline and in panic mode.

  18. Celaena Sardothien

    Okay, the people who barge in and start talking while you’re on the phone is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Just yesterday, I was on the phone and someone walked right up to my desk and started talking to me. She did not stop or slow down when she saw the phone either. I was in the middle of transferring the call and, due to this woman distracting me, I transferred it to the wrong person.

    So, when you’re on the phone and someone walks in and starts talking, turn your chair around or turn away from them. When they inevitably make hand signals or wave, look them dead in the eye but do not acknowledge them in the slightest. That way, they know you see them but have no intention of responding to them right now. If you don’t look at them, there’s a chance they’ll think you just don’t see them and will try harder.

    I know this seems rude, but it’s not. I assure you that they are the ones being rude.

    1. Amber Rose

      I told this story on AAM once, but I was trying to take an order on the phone once, and the dude who sat next to me called my name. Instead of taking the cue that I was talking on the phone he kept calling my name louder and louder until I put the customer on hold and said, “I’m on the phone, can we talk in a minute?”

      And he said, “Oh, you’re on the phone. I thought so.”

      And my brain exploded.

        1. RUKidding

          Me too! Seriously I’m not entirely sure my response wouldn’t have been “WHAT! What the fuck do you want?!”

      1. Annie on a Mouse

        That truly boggles the mind. When ask someone a question and they turn and you see they’re on the phone, the only acceptable response is, “Ah, sorry! I’ll talk to you later!”

        1. Amber Rose

          Yeah, dude is an odd duck. He doesn’t quite get social cues or like… appropriate behavior. He’s also incredibly touchy and prone to angry outbursts. I honestly don’t know why he has a job, except that he’s been here forever and they probably don’t feel like it’s worth the hassle.

    2. Blue

      I have occasionally done the thing my mom used to do when she was on the phone, which is to look the person directly in the eye, point at the phone, and then make a “wait a minute” gesture with my free hand. That’s generally worked for me, but it’s not something I’d want to do often. Fortunately the vast majority of my coworkers (past and present) go, “Oh, sorry!” when they see you’re on the phone and scurry away. Like normal people do.

      1. Dr. Pepper

        I’ve definitely done that. Direct eye contact, with raised eyebrows like “excuse you? I’m so obviously busy right now”. It quells the majority of people.

      2. ThursdaysGeek

        And for co-workers that is much better than what my mum would do, which is not respond to us in any way while she was on the phone. I suspect she did hear enough to determine if the house was on fire, but talking, yelling, tugging on her – she didn’t even blink in response to us. And we quickly learned to let her be until she was off the phone.

  19. Graff

    So sorry you are going through this – finding boundaries at work can be so frustrating! Also, thank you Alison for slipping in “the CFO is outside in the nude” – morning = made!

  20. cncx

    I’m living this right now so it is really timely. I find that people try to outsource their brains to me, and will do stuff like call or drop by for non-urgent stuff, and when i try to push back and ask them to send me an email, they turn it around to “oh but can you remind me”… no i can’t. My job is a service job, so it’s normal that some tasks be urgent and/or time-sensitive enough to interrupt me, but not all of them are. I can’t get my work done from the phone ringing, and when i turn around to write down whatever it is they interrupted me for, another phone call or drop-in.

    Furthermore i’m recovering from a concussion and some memory loss, and even pulling the medical card (“my memory is really messed up right now so i really, really need you to follow up with something in writing even if you drop by or i promise you i will forget it”) isn’t helping a bit. I’m at my wit’s end with this. I try to set boundaries, people push back, it’s exhausting. I understand OP, it’s a fine line between wanting to be approachable and open and wanting someone to just respect my time and priorities and my current temporary medical condition.

    1. Indie

      “Outsource their brains to me!”

      I would use those words, as well as “No, I am not doing reminders. I am not your Outlook calendar.”

      1. Kelly L.

        Yes! I call it “using me as an auxiliary brain.” Also manifests as asking me things that are 2 seconds to google.

    2. Dr. Pepper

      Would it be possible for you to just…. not? Like literally just tell people “no”. And if they screw up because you’ve refused to be their brain/nanny, then they’d have to figure out a different system. I know it may not be possible, but sometimes you just have to let people fail or flail around by themselves until they learn not to rely on you for stupid stuff.

  21. Ginger

    It feels rude sometimes to set boundaries, especially when they are new but you need to start doing it asap. You can even preface it when you first start telling people that this a new change for you for 2019 to work better as your organization grows (or something along those lines)

    But OP, I’m little wary of your lines about it’s OK for your boss to be terse because he’s male. He gets away with it because he’s head honcho. Females can be just as terse too. And you might view your role as intermediary but, from an outsiders perspective, it reads like the staff are abusing the open door that you’ve given them. You want to be seen as the go-between but they aren’t giving you basic (and I mean BASIC) respect here. You’ve earned the right to tell people to wait without them ignoring you.

    1. Asenath

      It’s entirely possible for females to respond to people who ignore such obvious cues as a closed door, a phone, and even “Sorry, I’m in the middle of something”. They can be terse or not, just as they please. In this case, I’d stop rewarding the people who are interrupting as well as working on responses.

      1. Doodle

        Work on the death stare (very effective if you can do it over the top of your glasses) that every good teacher cultivates. No words needed, just The Look.

    2. CrazyPlantLady

      It’s definitely more socially acceptable for men to be terse than women. When a woman is terse, she’s viewed as bitchy or rude while a man is viewed as strong and powerful. These are the social norms we live in within the US (and many other countries, I’m sure). Expectations are different. Assuming otherwise or that it’s solely based on position is naive at best.

      Regardless, the OP needs to set better boundaries, for which Alison gave great advice. But because of our social norms, I understand her desire to do so in a way that won’t have repercussions based on her gender.

      1. RUKidding

        Yes it is social norms. They need to change. The only way things change is to not accept the status quo because “social norms” and to push back…as hard as necessary.

    3. TootsNYC

      they aren’t giving you basic (and I mean BASIC) respect here.

      Yeah, opening your closed office door is HUGE.

    4. RUKidding

      Thanks for noticing the gender thing too. I tend to always notice that kind of stuff—-it’s my north star, but I’m always happy for confirmation.

  22. mark132

    Part of this can depend on whether or not you are a bottleneck. If I have to get an answer from you to do my job, in particular if the needed answer is time sensitive, I’m going to be persistent. Based on some of what is in the post I’m wondering if that is what is going on here at least in part.

    I’ve worked with coworkers where we did (at least in our opinion) a good job on the project. Demo it to the project manager and immediately they want major changes. And the original requirement were approved by the project manager. This same project manager was always busy and it was difficult to corner for answers. So I’m wonder if there might be some of this dynamic going on here?

    1. INeedANap

      But OP is specifically giving them a time, that same day, when she will be available for them. So I don’t see how in any way she comes across as a bottleneck. I’m very curious as to what in the post you saw that made you think that?

      1. mark132

        In particular the line about being the conduit to the owner. and in part the sheer persistence of her coworkers. And with some of my coworkers “I’ll be free at 2 pm” leaves off “if something else does come up before then” which frequently does happen.

        1. Captain Radish

          I think it’s rather telling that this is NOT a reference to a prior letter and more that this is something you thought up. :D

          Of course, the infamous Duck Club comes to mind, so I suppose that’s not too much of a stretch.

  23. Budgie Lover

    Ironically, there is something to be said for being rigid, lacking warmth, and problem solving in a linear fashion without talking it through first. Allison does a great job outlining why the office culture of friendliness is going overboard and why there need to be some boundaries.

  24. Free Meerkats

    Does your door not have a lock? First you need to make it clear in a staff meeting that if your door is locked, the only reason to knock is an Actual Emergency; anything else will get the miscreant disciplined. Then if you need to really concentrate and work, lock the door. If you need quiet but can tolerate minor interruptions, just shut the door.

    1. Solidus Pilcrow

      And if the door doesn’t lock, shove a doorstop under it (doorstops can be had for under $5) or put a heavy box in front of it.

      1. Jules the First

        I don’t have a door!

        We’re one of those radical-open-plan offices where everyone from the CEO down works from long shared tables (and yes, it sounds horrible but you really do adapt…)

  25. Anecdata

    I heard you say also that a lot of the questions are just running things by you / getting confirmation that it’s ok to proceed. Are these questions that you actually want people to check in with you on? I wonder if there are guidelines that you can give people about decisions that you do / do not need to approve. Sometimes, especially if people feel that the owner is “harsh” on mistakes (even if it’s just a tone mismatch, and he doesn’t mean to come across that way), they can overcompensate by asking for approval/confirmation at every single step, to make sure they’re covering themselves. If you let the team know you trust them to make x,y,z specific decision (example: “I don’t need to review materials that are only going to internal team”; “I’m authorizing you to approve purchases under $500 without me”, etc) without you, you can cut down on the total questions.

    On the other hand, if it really is stuff that you want to be involved in (“Show me the final invoice for Major Client before you send it out”), then the solutions about scheduling check-in times, an im queue, handling some of this by email sound great.

  26. Indie

    You…absolutely need to interrupt “the open communication and supportive environment”! You need to, because they are ‘open’ to treating you like the boss’s PA ‘What would the ‘real boss’ think of this idea?’ and they expect the support of a nursemaid, mother, therapist and coach combined. Quit doing their emotional labour and cheerleading as they work through stuff. They are grown ups.

    I cannot believe they are balking at a higher up’s suggestion that she has her own work to do, as opposed to supporting their work. The rudeness is breathtaking.
    If this ever happens after you have had the big picture conversation, stand up silently and hold the door open until they leave. Then schedule a meeting about professionalism.

    You can still make the time for brain storming and sharing on your terms. Use an open area, make yourself the chair of the conversation to keep it productive. You could start and end every day this way if it is so important to you. The key thing is that you lead it and you get what you need, on your terms. Your team need to know they can’t just barge into offices with this kind of expectation. It will hurt them in future roles until they get how rude and entitled this is.

    1. IT But I Can't Fix Your Printer

      Also I don’t even think this is a supportive environment! It’s an environment where the OP is supporting/enabling everyone else and they aren’t reciprocating. Likewise, communication should involve ideas/works actually being understood (OP says that they cannot talk now, this makes it into someone else’s brain and is acted upon) instead of just coworkers word-vomiting at the OP.

  27. Frogsandturtles

    This would drive me absolutely bananas but on the other hand this post made me laugh a little too, because this is such a mother-kid dynamic. (I also work from home…) I am guessing the “kids” would be mortified if that was pointed out to them. (Or comforted? I dunno.) On the positive side, at least they recognize your authority! : ) (Mom=person in charge who is also the person you can have Feelings with/person you expect will drop everything for you at any moment)

  28. Hey Karma, Over here.

    “I do sometimes answer their questions, if a client is on hold on the phone or some other time sensitive item,” I see you realize this a problem you have with yourself that you need to change.
    If I may, I suggest you start redefining the term “multitasking.”
    It’s not doing five things at the same time, it’s having five things running at the same time. You take a phone call while documents print or programs compile or whatever is productive but different. You don’t take a phone call while meeting with someone else. Besides being rude, it’s not productive.
    Your coworkers are being selfish and rude by crossing boundaries. You are not being selfish and rude by setting them. You are actually being helpful and productive.

    1. TootsNYC

      yeah, the client may be on hold on their phone, but isn’t that rude of them, to the client?
      Shouldn’t they be saying, to the client, “I’ll need to get that info for you, I’ll call you back later today,” instead of making the person wait while they walk down the hall?

      I mean, really.

    2. LCL

      This is the classic intermittent reward scenario. It’s why gambling works. People are more likely to keep doing something if they aren’t rewarded for it (win) every time. If they lose every time they get disheartened and quit. If they win sometimes, they will give it just one more try.

  29. FYI

    “He can do that, as a man …”

    Whoa. Wait a second. Women absolutely CAN tell people to bugger off, and many do. This has nothing to do with him being a man. Nothing. You can stop this problem by, yes, getting mad once in a while. That’s not the exclusive domain of men, you know. If someone is rude, you can directly say, “cut it out” without “dramatically impact[ing] relationships” and “the open communication and supportive environment.” That’s not all on your shoulders!

    Boundaries are CRUCIAL to open communication and support. You’re setting yourself on fire to keep others warm, and it’s going to boomerang on you.

  30. always in email jail

    I very rarely think notes are the answer to anything in the workplace, but in the past I found placing a note on my door that says “Conference call- please email” was way more effective than just a closed door. People seem to be able to get in the habit of ignoring a closed door or “just” peeking their head in, but to blatantly ignore a sign seems to give more pause

    1. TootsNYC

      I might suggest a write-on, wipe-off message board on the door for people to write their names if they come up and the door is closed. So the OP can call them once she’s available.

      I once had people leaving stuff on my desk and chair, and it was SO disruptive. I started making them put it in the in-box, and then aggressively demonstrating that they WOULD get a reply, with the proper urgency, if they did so. It worked, once they saw that they really weren’t putting something into a black hole.

  31. The Man, Becky Lynch

    Stop thinking “he can get away with it because he’s a man”. As a woman in a powerful spot, you’re cutting your legs out from yourself by that mind set.

    I’m the woman who often has prickly male owners to act as buffer to.

    You have to be stern and tell them to leave, tell them you’ll let them know when you’re done or free. And follow through.

    Yes, you’ll make a few gasp over the fact you’re sending them away. That’s their feelings to manage. Don’t actually say “get out of here” but say “please leave, I’m on the phone.”

    They’re trampling on you like a herd of frisky baby elephants. It’s going to continue until you draw a line in the sand and stand by it.

    It’s painful and difficult to switch to a mode of “I’m serious, I’m not available, get out” but it’s critical to doing your job well. They’ll eat you alive if you don’t harden yourself just a little more.

    1. BookishMiss

      For real. I set myself up at my current job as a No Nonsense Person who will absolutely help you out, but there are Boundaries that I expect people to respect. It’s working out quite nicely so far, and people come to me who otherwise wouldn’t in part because of my boundaries.*
      Being a woman doesn’t mean being available to all the people for all the things all the time, and you are allowed to leave people unsatisfied. Especially when they already know the answer.
      *my chocolate stash doesn’t hurt, either, but that’s protected by dragons…

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        I’ve found a delightful balance between “warmth” and “I’ll eat your face, gtfo”.

        I just finished decorating for Valentine…and yet still knows that I’ll stand for no nonsense.

        I worked at a lumber mill in the middle of a mud field. I’ll slog through mud to count inventory and I’ll make coffee because I drink it too. But I’ll make you think you’re about to get murdered if you interrupt me while I’m on the phone.

        These people sound so odd. Who walks into a closed door or starts talking while your boss is on the phone?! Me making us money or saving it trumps your feelings if you can’t take social cues I’m throwing at you (door closed, phone to ear, back to you…I’m socially awkward but COME ON, BRO.)

  32. irene adler

    Good advice here. Stick to your guns on establishing times when you cannot be disturbed. Be prepared for pushback.

    I found that the reason folks always interrupted me was because “it was easier” than going to someone else, or looking up the info themselves or taking responsibility for their specific job tasks. I found ways to make things “harder” but never was able to remedy the situation completely. Got some whining and “But I don’t know how to do this!” That passed after a while.

  33. drpuma

    You say a large number of the questions are confirmation that folks have made the right choice. Why do they feel like they need this confirmation? Do you have the authority to
    A, At staff meetings, highlight and complement folks who make and act on good decisions without your input?
    B, Actually bake “pro-active problem solving” into the employee evaluation and performance review process, if your company has one.
    Especially at a small and growing company, your growth will eventually be held back if in practice folks are not actually given the authority to make a decision and run with it.

    1. BookishMiss

      C, task someone to create written reference material people can use to validate themselves. I did that, and referring people to it like a broken record saved my sanity.

      1. TootsNYC

        D, task certain people with being the Expert on Procedure A, so they can be the one to field minor questions.

  34. Waiting At The DMV

    Why not shift the conversation with the broader office from telling to asking? Part of the problem seems to be their lack of empowerment around solving their own problems – so, use this moment as an opportunity to empower them. Present the problem in a calm, neutral, matter of fact way. I would personally avoid saying “people keep interrupting me” because folks will likely hear that in a negative way which could damage relationships. Instead, maybe something like “As you know, I am responsible for projects X, Y, and Z. I also manage half of you, and sometimes serve as a sounding board to the rest of you as well. Doing these projects we’ll and being fully available to all of you in the way I would like would take over 70 hrs per week. Something needs to change – what are your ideas?”

    Then see what arises. Ask clarifying questions only – get them to do the work on solving this issue. Then go away, reflect, and share what set of solutions you would like the group to test for some X period of time, and schedule a follow-up after that time to reflect on how things are going and to hold space for the group to help refine their solutions.

  35. Essess

    If they ignore that your door is closed, put a ‘do not disturb’ sign outside the door. If they ignore that (and if you don’t have a lock on your door), a rubber doorjamb pushed under the door from the inside will make it difficult for them to just walk in. Anyone who continues to force their way in with a ‘do not disturb’ and a blocked door better have a “the building is on fire’ reason or there will be a serious 1-on-1 meeting about professional boundaries with them as soon as I’m available.

  36. SigneL

    I find it useful to think in terms of “what can I do?” given the finite number of hours in the day, and also, “what do I do best?” There are times when you have to realize that yes, you could groom llamas, but you’re terrible/very slow at it, and it makes no sense to spend a great deal of time doing something that Sushi can do so much faster/better than you can.

    But I’ve been in a situation where it would have taken me 20 hours in a day to do all the tasks that had fallen to me. I had to recognize that it wasn’t possible.

  37. Doodle

    That might work, or they might start knocking and not stop.

    Once when I was teaching fulltime, I had my door closed, door blinds down, lights dimmed, no note on the door — I was hiding! to get some work down. Student knocks. I ignore. Student knocks again, louder. I ignore. Student knocks really hard and says, loudly, I know you’re in there. I replied, I know you’re out there. Come back during office hours.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      If a staff member did that, I’d break my back having them fired. I’m not working with anyone who’s that aggressive.

      Students at least have some excuse because of the power dynamics. That’s a great way to see some retaliatory marks slippage in some teachers I’ve had over the years.

  38. The Ginger Ginger

    Also – think about the kind of questions you’re getting that are not directly related to the work you own or supervise.

    How time sensitive are these requests? And do they HAVE to be handled by you? Can some of these people be re-directed to their own managers? Can those kinds of questions be directed to someone else completely? Or vetted by someone else and escalated to you when they meet a certain set of criteria, ie set up a better managed communication pipeline. Are any of the types of questions regular enough that you could create a one-sheeter with guidance or instructions on how to handle them? Can documentation cut back on any of this?

    Office Hours/Open House is a GREAT idea. Just be really clear when you set them up what kind of communication this time is set aside for (i.e. non-time sensitive, vision casting, random questions, etc – whatever can be coralled into a once a week or bi-weekly hour without becoming a roadblock).

    And a general announcement that a closed door means do not disturb unless it’s an emergency will hopefully help. Maybe put a sign or a white board on the door and add a note with the time you’ll be available. That way people can know when to come back or determine if their need is urgent enough to interrupt you.

    1. The Ginger Ginger

      Plus, once you lay out your boundary, kindly pointing out to people “This question could have waited until I was available at 3.” will help them re-calibrate their sense of what constitutes “emergency – can interrupt” situations over time.

      1. TootsNYC

        or even better: “this question CAN wait until I am available at 3. Come back then, and ask it all over again.”

  39. Noah

    I think OP and Alison are perhaps missing the most significant problem: the amount of management time required by her job exceeds the amount of time she has available to devote to that task. The employees are coming to her because they need to talk to her regularly. (She doesn’t say that the individual questions are not legitimate, just the timing. Even the people she doesn’t manage — she has declared herself the conduit to the owner, so she needs to talk to them, too.) So, either OP needs to persuade Owner to hire more people or accept that her job requires working longer hours and do the non-management tasks when the people who are asking her questions all day have gone home.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Maybe, but I don’t think that’s conclusive. She does say a lot of the interruptions are people confirming things they don’t need to confirm with her, and that a lot of them are people who don’t report to her. I think it’s just as likely that they’ve created a culture where people come to her far more often than they need to, and that boundaries and resetting expectations would solve a huge chunk of this. In fact, I don’t think you can really tell if it’s a job description problem until you solve the immediate problem, clear all those interruptions away, and see where things stand at that point.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      They seem to me like they aren’t able to act individually. This is either lack of confidence, lack of leadership pushing them to be and not punishing them for doing so.

      I’ve never needed to devote all my time to managing, this is a small privately owned business we’re talking about. A 25 person company doesn’t have devoted managers who are there only to field reports questions and such.

      They may have people who aren’t used to not having someone micromanage them as well. Which reminds me of the other day about Big Biz person getting rejected by StartUp.

  40. RUKidding

    “He can do that, as a man…”

    OP his gender should be irrelevant. Him being the owner is a factor, him being male isn’t. You, as a woman, “can do that” as well.

    1. Indie

      I dont think its actually her job to be the office Agony Aunt for work themed dilemmas. The team simply enjoy the opportunity to chat and procrastinate to someone who is nice and approachable.

    2. Indie

      . You, as a woman, “can do that” as well.

      Yes! She even has the owners’ express encouragement.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      And he gave permission to her to use his “bugger off” mentality!

      My recently departed beloved boss used to tell me to knuckle down on people giving me grief. As the owner, he was a loveable crankypants mentor to me. I was like “No dude, I’m not going to tell a customer to piss off but I’ll be certain not to buckle under pressure to give into asinine demands!”

      I was the person who softened his “LOL EF OFF” with “your options are to pay shipping for this free kit or you’re able to purchase the “stuff” at a hardware store, which costs more than the 5.99 shipping we charge.” or “We are not responsible for replacing something your dog chewed up but I’ll send it without any waiting as a professional courtesy!”

  41. V

    A few people have already commented to this effect but – if a good deal of the questions people are asking you is to get your confirmation that they’ve made the right choice – it feels like they aren’t comfortable being autonomous. This may be for a few different reasons. They might just not know that they should be autonomous and management has never encouraged them to be. I can say from my personal experience that people value autonomy in hiring/promoting so you’re doing them a disservice if you’ve straight up never told them that.

    But people being uncomfortable being autonomous can also come from being micromanaged or from processes that need to be re-evaluated. If you want people to be autonomous, you have to be okay with them making a decision that’s wrong once in a while and course-correcting until they get it. Micromanagers/perfectionists are made super uncomfortable by this and will step in to make the decision they thought should be made even though it undermines the employee or is relatively minor or causes a huge waste of time/resources. For processes that need to be re-evaluated, is there a chain of sign-off that’s expected or some other extreme reverence/fear around client relationships that causes people to be extra careful?

    Also for the record, even though everyone has already said it here, you don’t need to do the CEO’s emotional labor because nature gifted you with a certain set of genitals. It’s 2019.

  42. Parenthetically

    “just because I am visible does not mean I am available”

    This is an EXCELLENT thing to add to your script in your staff meeting, OP! Use this, verbatim. It’s pithy enough that it’s easy to repeat in the moment as well — “visible, not available!” — when someone tries to interrupt you again.

  43. Gadfly

    I worked as shared assistant, which worked out as something similiar in many ways. Something that helped was I kept a clipboard at the edge of my cubicle with a form I’d created and if I was busy that moment or not at my desk they could put down their name and what they needed and wanted and if there was a deadline or other important info and if they wanted me to go to them or call them first or just handle it and let them know.

    It ended up working pretty well. I sold it to them as a way to make sure that no matter the crisis (and several things were usually on fire at any given moment if anything was) I’d have that to go back to in order to remember everyone and everything

  44. bikes

    Can you ask the boss if you can work from home or a coffee shop for 3-4 hour blocks perhaps twice a week for a month or two…? Maybe this will help people get accustomed to the fact that sometimes you need to write, do creative thinking, make uninterrupted calls, etc.

    Train people to expect that you won’t always be present.

  45. Jennifer Juniper

    I’m guessing gender dynamics has a lot to do with this.

    OP can always start coughing. That will do wonders for getting rid of unwanted people ;)

  46. Purple Jello

    If you go the route of explaining the new policy at a staff meeting I would also have an example of when they should interrupt you (fire, blood or nude boss), and have ready an answer to most likely questions. (Q-But what if Suzie is calling in sick? A-Talk to her manager and email me, etc.)

    1. TootsNYC

      “have ready an answer to most likely questions. (Q-But what if Suzie is calling in sick? A-Talk to her manager and email me, etc.)”
      Or, do what my wise, wise mother did, and ASK THEM what they think they should do.
      Especially since they seem to have trained themselves into helplessness.
      There’s nothing like being required to come up with the answer yourself.

      She also used to say, “If I weren’t here, what would you do?”

  47. MaureenC

    Do you have review power over these folks? A nice email saying “From now on, anyone who keeps talking when I say that I can’t be disturbed will have that noted on their quarterly review. Please IM me for urgent requests” might do the trick.

  48. Jennifer

    Take Alison’s advice. Don’t be rude, but firm and assertive. And it’s not easy but you have to let go of worrying if other people think that you’re rude.

  49. glitter writer

    Aside from all the long-term respect and retraining the staff issues — sometimes a really basic fix can help a lot.

    To wit: I stuck up a dry-erase board on my old office door with Command strips. Every time I shut the door, I updated it:

    “On a call until 1:30”
    “In a conference 10:15 – noon”
    “On deadline, available at 2pm”
    “I’m just being loud, feel free to knock!”
    “DO NOT DISTURB” (for when I was pumping — I started that job 11 weeks after having a baby)

    It helped a lot with managing expectations around me and letting people know when I was ok to bug.

  50. Bopper

    Do you use Skype for Business or the like? You cuold also put all your meetings/calls as meetings in Outook/whatever…so if you are busy it shows as red but if you are free it shows as green.
    That way they could then IM you or stop by your office.

  51. Statler von Waldorf

    I suspect you’re being too nice. Are you an actual manager, with the ability to impose consequences on the people who are interrupting you, up to and including terminating their employment? If not, then just know that I do feel sorry for you because being in that position sucks, there is plenty of good and more applicable advice here written by others, and please ignore my second paragraph.

    However, if you do have that authority, why aren’t you writing people up and imposing consequences for people who consistently fail to follow your instructions? You have the power in this situation, nor the employees. First, you politely inform them of your expectations. The second time, you have a one-on-one and in a polite but no longer friendly fashion you let them know exactly what they did wrong, that there will be unpleasant consequences if they continue this behavior, and you ask them to commit to changing it. The third time, you begin progressive discipline. If by the fourth or fifth time they still don’t get it, you fire them. You appear to be letting a desire to be considered “nice” interfere with being a good manager. It may sound counter-intuitive, but in my experience being able to draw hard lines and enforce them will get you far more respect in the long run than letting your employees walk all over you.

  52. Me

    Office hours!

    I was an admin for year for a guy who was so incredibly pulled in difference directions he often was not even in the office. As in working, but elsewhere in meetings and such. Down side is, staff still need him to sign stuff, answer questions and give direction (which often means understanding what the companies direction is so they can ensure they’re on the right path). So it became a save up shizz for when you see him and then him being interrupted all day by staff with legitimate needs.

    Solutions
    1. Him empowering his admin (may or may not be an option for you) to be his gatekeeper AND to speak for him to the extent possible. as you probably know, half the stuff people think they need him for, they don’t really. The right designee can handle a lot.
    2. office hours. regularly recurring time that he commits to being available to answer all the things.

  53. rogue axolotl

    To my mind, it sounds like there could be a larger organizational issue at play. It sounds like the owner has set himself up as a roadblock, and the staff need his or the LW’s approval or feedback for a lot of day-to-day things. (Although it is possible I’m projecting because my company works a lot like this.) I wonder if it would be possible to deputize a few other people in management roles to be able to approve less essential items, so the LW isn’t left as the only conduit to get things done.

  54. Half-Caf Latte

    OP-

    From your letter, it seems like you enjoy the people-oriented piece a lot, and recognize how that helps your org succeed.

    I see above that you mentioned getting an assistant when budgets allow. If I were you, I’d do some real thinking about which parts of your old job could be done well by someone else, and which parts, if any, make sense for you to keep. (I know you said you’re detail oriented and produce high quality work, but if you were to hand off these parts, would you have more time to manage, and how would you feel about your job?).

    Hiring a replacement for your old job vs. an admin assistant who can help you schedule the people who come looking to you for help might create very different solutions, with very different workflows. Might be worthwhile to think about what makes the most sense for you.

    (Caveat- still sounds like people need to be trained to interrupt less, but I wonder if OP had more time to mentor people that they would grow to make independent decisions?)

  55. Erin

    Alison’s suggestion of office hours has been really useful for me in the past, especially in one role I held where employees frequently disregarded when I did not have time to chat at the particular time they came around.

    I set up a few 2 hour blocks of time during my week that were relatively predictable. They were during times that I knew I would be doing tasks that did not require a great deal of attention and that I could be easily interrupted from/get back to. It took a bit of adjusting, but, it made a less chaotic day for all of us. Some of my team set office hours in a similar fashion. It was a very helpful thing, and it made most of the team consider what/why they are coming to chat about something a bit more.

  56. knitcrazybooknut

    Hey GT, one more chime in: If it’s okay with your office culture, you can get a small whiteboard to attach to your office door. One area got these installed for their door, and suddenly our whole department saw how well it worked and everybody got one. Using these to communicate what’s up is essential for my area; when we’re in payroll mode, door is closed, no diversions or interruptions allowed. It also helps with won’t be back see you tomorrow communication. (Heck, I often write notes to myself – parked in another area, etc.

  57. Former call centre worker

    “a large number of those questions are just confirmation that the choice they have already made is the right one”

    We had this problem a lot in one of my old jobs. What we were doing to work on it was to ask questions, like “What do you think?”, “How did you reach that decision?”, etc, rather than giving an answer. I think sometimes it comes about due to fear of making the wrong decision so think about whether people have reason to be afraid of getting it wrong and if that can be changed.

  58. TechWorker

    I need to get better at this but at the same time it is difficult because my team is so new that if they don’t get an answer sometimes they will literally sit there stuck.
    Today something which annoyed me to the point I might bring it up, haven’t decided yet, is that two people on my team asked me a question when I was mid writing an email, to which I responded ‘busy gimme 5’ and they instead asked someone else… who is also q busy and probably doesn’t have time for constant distraction. I do always get back to people as well but if I answered every q as it came up I would literally only ever context switch.

  59. Jules the First

    I sympathise, OP – I have 7 direct reports, my own massive workload as a contributor, and part of my job is to be a sounding board for a hundred or so of out most senior staff. What works for me:
    – every single one of my direct reports has 30 minutes on my calendar every two weeks to use as they see fit. We find this works better than an hour once a month – lots of stuff can wait a week, a lot of stuff can’t wait two or three weeks.
    – we meet as a team once a week for 45 minutes to share knowledge and solve problems that other people on the team might also be having; this also works for stuff too urgent to wait for their one on one time
    – on Tuesdays, I am not available for interruptions unless the CFO is outside naked. This is when I get most of my work as a contributor done.
    – Thursdays are for thinking – I’m available all day as a sounding board, whatever you need, come by when it’s convenient
    – on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I do office hours from 9-10.30; 14.00-15.00; and 17.30-18.00. If you interrupt outside of those times, I’ll redirect you to the nearest slot unless it really is urgent enough that you do actually need me to drop everything and solve it now.

    Because I’m clear about the timing, most people respect it – there are a few who don’t and they outrank me so I just have to deal, but since you’re the most senior at your org, you probably won’t have that problem.

  60. Alanna

    Setting STRICT office hours worked for me in a similar situation – I was the IT person, web developer, I oversaw all of the computer lab student workers, and did a whole lot of other things for an entire college at a university. People were supposed to put in tickets but never did. They would literally tell me their issues were more important than me going to the bathroom when i was two steps from the bathroom. It was my first job out of college and I was hesitant to put my foot down but I had to get my work done. So I worked with my boss and I posted office hours – they were emailed out, sent out and discussed at department meetings, posted on my office door and all of the computer lab doors, posted in my calendar, on the website, etc. My student workers were trained to catch and divert people (and it was their job to actually do most of the fixing anyway!). Professors finally sort of understood, since they also have office hours. They could also submit tickets (the proper route!) any time! or email me! And with some of the more problematic ones, I had to sit down and explain that i wear a lot of hats and fixing their issues is actually one of my lesser hats, so i really need time to do all of my other work that keeps the college running.

  61. Please No More Meetings

    Dear OP, I feel you so much on this topic. I absolutely agree with the commenter above who called it “outsourcing their brains” — the things I was saying weren’t incredibly brilliant, I just took the time to break down problems into their components.

    I was the (intended) go-to person for ONE portion of our department, and then it was like people realized they could ask me all kinds of stuff and I would break down a problem into do-able tasks and easier decisions, and then I ended up at a place where people would ask me to help them with all kinds of questions or issues. The most memorable one was when a colleague came into my office and said, “hey are you busy,” looked at the enormous pile of work on my normally-neat desk, commented “oh you’re REALLY busy!” and then didn’t miss a beat before asking me, “Do you know if my house is on sewer or septic tank?” I: had never been to his house, didn’t know where he lived, and al;skdfjlakjsdf WHAT. I looked at him, blinked slowly, and said, “No, I don’t know if your house is on septic tank or sewer.”

    I will be reading the comments and suggestions here with great interest. This is an ongoing effort for me, but part of what helped me eventually was just locking my door if I was in my office and walking away if I was in the hallway and I couldn’t stop to problem solve for others.

  62. Elizabeth West

    “the CFO is outside in the nude”

    I’d be so tempted to say this just to see their faces.
    Sorry, I’m feeling very evil today. :)

  63. AmethystMoon

    Ugh, this sounds like my last co-worker. He would constantly interrupt me with whatever I was doing and could never ever wait for an answer, not even like 15 minutes. I would try and train him to realize that hey, sometimes people are really busy and need to focus on their work, but he refused to even go and read his notes for the answers, repeatedly.

    1. The Gollux (Not a Mere Device)

      There’s some truth to that, but it’s not helpful here: the LW is asking how to retrain people, which means she already agrees that she should.

      I don’t have any good suggestions, just a long-shot: paraphrasing the business owner, with something like “Boss told me to tell you [all] to go away and solve it yourself/come back Tuesday. If he tells me that doesn’t apply to this problem, I’ll address it as soon as he tells me to.” Followed by OP e saying “I need you to go back to work, Boss said so” and walking away/turning her back to them/escorting them out of the office and closing the doory (this part is what Alison and other people have suggested).

  64. advocateextraordinair

    This doesn’t address the more deep-rooted part of the question, but I think can be helpful in situations like this:
    At my workplace, we’re expected to mostly have our office doors open because it’s more welcoming and encourages team work/engagement. But we also spend time away from our desks in meetings, offsite with clients, or just needing to focus on calling clients or catching up on notes. We all have white board on our office doors where we can put “performance meeting with Jane,” “client meeting off site,” or “working on reports, enter if important.” This is really helpful not just knowing where people are but also to know if now is an appropriate time to come in or interrupt. Obviously sometimes people disregard the sign and ask questions but for the most part, it’s a good way to keep track of each other’s availability and whereabouts. As the person wanting to interrupt, it can be nice to know without asking that Karen is in a meeting but she’ll be done at 2 so I’ll just come back in 30 minutes or Jenna is really busy today so I’ll go ask Anna instead. The culture of your office has to match but can be a tiny step towards a bigger difference.

  65. Jack V

    Oh gosh, that’s some work. I hope things get better, I see the answer’s already helped a lot.

    I’ve a variety of observations, I’m not sure any will help.

    If the business has expanded, there likely is too much stuff for you to do, even with only the stuff which really is your responsibility, and you have to be realistic about what you have time for, and that someone probably needs to keep everyone else pointed in the right direction even if you do less of “your” work. That’s sadly unavoidable, although hopefully, it’s good for your career if you’re effectively running the entire company when the owner’s not very approachable.

    When people bother you, what should they be doing? Should they be asking owner even though they don’t want to? Should they be going ahead with their best interpretation, even if there’s a risk it’s wrong? Should they be emailing you or owner, not expecting a response right then? Especially, will that actually work? If so, you need to tell them that, and then not respond, even though that’s hard. And tell them to talk to owner even if he’ll be gruff, if he’ll actually be helpful.

    If it won’t work, if they do need direction and they won’t realistically get it any other way than from you, you need to decide, is the right answer to help anyway, taking on more responsibility, even if it leaves you less time? Or to say, “talk to owner” and if you know he won’t respond, accept that that’s not your problem, he’ll learn when projects go wrong. Or to brace owner (sadly, maybe in his language), and tell him how he needs to respond to these people if any work is going to get done.

    It may help to have a regular meeting time, maybe daily. Either in person, or by email, or whatever, asking, “do you have any issues coming up today someone needs to know about”. Either for your direct reports or for everyone, so any issues get raised, and you (or someone) can decide then to say, “decide yourself”, or “talk to me later today” or “send an email to me and owner and we’ll get to it” or whatever’s appropriate. Don’t let it turn into a long waffling session, just have people say “I need to talk to someone about X, Y and Z” and then direct them to do so, or do it entirely online, but devote some time in the morning to reading those emails and dealing with people, or whatever. And then, any other time, say, “sorry, I’m working, bring it up tomorrow morning,” and then make it stick.

    Finally, I don’t usually suggest giving up authority like this, but if you need to be firm, you could say something like “I’ve already told you I’m busy, do I need to get owner to tell you again?” Honestly, you should be able to be firm on your own account, but if owner is already known to be gruff, it may get the message across in a not very serious way

  66. Sue

    My boss is extremely business – here until 11 pm sometimes – but she has staff that do need answers. She installed a colored light outside her office. Green means she’s free, blue means she’s busy but can be interrupted for something important, purple she’s in a meeting or on a conference call & can’t be disturbed except for emergencies, and red means she’s out of the office. She put a poster with the meanings of the colors by the light. That has saved her a LOT of time.

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