We’ve all worked with a chronic interrupter or complainer before. Not only can their behaviour be frustrating, but it can impact productivity. Here’s how to deal with the matter professionally.
Let me paint a picture for you. You’re preparing for an important presentation due first thing tomorrow. You’ve finally got in the zone after an hour or so of procrastinating and two very strong coffees. Just as you get into flow, a colleague sidles up and starts unloading about their personal dramas. You don’t want to be rude, so you listen to them… for 20 whole minutes.
Forty minutes later, you’re back into the swing of productivity. But then that same colleague starts spamming you with instant messages and another begins a loud conversation over your desk with someone on the other side of the room.
What do you do? Unless you have amazing boundaries, you probably sweep the behaviour under the rug. After all, these aren’t bad people, they’re just getting on your nerves.
However, the avoidance tactic can have surprising consequences.
Nearly 70 per cent said they’d wasted time trying to avoid an annoying colleague and 66 per cent said this impacted their productivity. The report concluded that when employees engage in avoidance behaviours regarding an annoying colleague, it can cost the business around USD$12,500 in lost productivity – and this figure doesn’t include the potential costs related to lowered morale.
“People tend to take the path of least resistance,” says Shelley Johnson, founder and HR consultant at Boldside Consulting and co-host of the My Millennial Career podcast. “We lean towards ignoring the matter, but that becomes a dangerous path to go down … because we’re just kicking the problem down the road.”
When we try to suppress negative emotions, research shows our brains jump into a defensive mode. This can increase stress levels which impacts the areas of the brain responsible for reasoning and self-control.
In short, we’re more likely to lash out at those who annoy us if we ignore the issue. How can we avoid this?
Don’t let it snowball
There are as many workplace grievances as there are shades of colour in a rainbow.
You might be peeved by the oversharer, the office gossip, the micromanager, the patroniser, the person who’s always running 10 minutes late, the perfectionist or that colleague who seems to drop the ball every other week.
These are seemingly trivial annoyances and don’t always get the same attention as overtly malicious behaviours, such as being cutthroat or rude, but it’s important to remember that they can snowball.
“They’re not toxic like that person who has taken credit for your work or the dishonest leader … but they can have that cumulative impact,” says Johnson.
“Often people think, ‘It’s not a big deal. I’ll just cop it on the chin.’ But that’s where problems start and you get subtle team tension that never gets addressed.”
Read HRM’s article on managing conflict-avoidant employees.
How to start the conversation
When you go into a conversation that could cause emotions to flare, your goal needs to be to disarm the other person, says Johnson.
To do this, Johnson uses a three-step approach to having difficult conversations: core, situation and impact.
Start by looking at the root cause, or core, of the issue, then offer an example to demonstrate the specific situation.
“For the last step, it’s important that the person you’re giving feedback to understands the impact on you. We often don’t understand our own impact.”
For example, let’s say you’re annoyed with your boss who seemed disinterested during your last one-on-one meeting. Johnson suggests saying something like:
“I want to do well at work and our weekly catch-ups really matter to me [CORE]. I noticed you were sending emails on your phone during our last chat [SITUATION] and that made me feel like you didn’t have time for me [IMPACT].”
When to have the conversation
There’s a sweet spot to keep in mind when delivering feedback about someone’s annoying habits. Too early and you may be overly emotional and unnecessarily harsh. Leave it too late and you might tell yourself you’ve missed the boat and fall back into avoidance.
Your goldilocks moment – when the time for feedback is ‘just right’ – is somewhere within the same week of the issue occurring. That way you can approach the issue calmly, offer a recent example and maintain momentum to address it.
“Healthy teams have tension. It’s a normal part of life. We need to help people to use tools that make these conversations more normal.” – Shelley Johnson, Founder, Boldside Consulting
However, Johnson says we shouldn’t let this suggested timeframe stop us from taking action.
“We almost treat it like an excuse [not to say anything] because we tell ourselves we’ve missed our moment.
“We buy into this myth that there’s a statute of limitations on giving feedback. Yes, we want to be timely with feedback, but it’s more important that we’re communicating how we’re feeling.”
If you want to share feedback you’ve been thinking about for a while, Johnson says offering vulnerability will help. She suggests saying something like:
“I’ve noticed this for a while, but I haven’t known how to address it. I felt awkward and didn’t know how to bring this up, but if I keep sitting on this I worry it’s going to be detrimental to our relationship.”
Suggested phrasing when dealing with an annoying colleague
It’s also important to consider the other person’s perspective in these situations, she adds, as this can often add useful context. You could say:
“This is my perspective about the issue, but I’m keen to hear yours. Is my behaviour bothering you in any way?”
Johnson adds that it can be powerful to admit that you might have made an assumption about something, but quickly follow up with an ‘I statement’ that outlines your feelings. For example:
“I might be reading this wrong, but I felt undermined the other day when you told our manager I hadn’t completed my part of the project, when it was something we were meant to work on together. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention, but I felt it was important that I share how it made me feel.”
When coming up with a solution to the issue, it’s quite powerful to do it collaboratively, says Johnson, as this can give people a sense of attachment to whatever you agree upon, rather than it feeling like something that’s being imposed on them.
“Don’t go into a conversation with an outcome in mind. Know about the things you want to raise and the impact it had on you, but you want to collaboratively design the way forward.”
Using the example of the serial interrupter, you might say something like this:
“When I’m wearing my headphones at work it signals that I’m in deep-work mode. When you come and talk to me, I find it hard to get back into flow. But I’m sensing that you might want to talk because you need support or want to bounce some ideas around, so what if I made sure to emerge after an hour so we can have time to discuss any pressing issues?”
Johnson also suggests taking a preventative approach by addressing these matters in regular ‘culture check in’ meetings.
“When you’re doing a monthly meeting, or perhaps when you’ve got new employees joining, encourage people to share their pet peeves. These aren’t deal breakers; they’re just little niggly things that annoy people.”
You can do this in a fun way that encourages people to share without pointing the finger at a specific person.
“Ask people to share three of their pet peeves and three things they love about working with a team. Make it a bit of an ice-breaker. So now we know Jenny hates it when people have their music playing out loud; Bob doesn’t like being bombarded with a video call without notice; and Sue feels anxious when she gets a message saying, ‘Have you got time for a quick chat tomorrow?’ without any context.
“You don’t know what’s annoying people until you ask them.”
While the interrupter or office gossip are examples of overt acts of annoyance, Johnson says HR should also pay attention to the subtler, more complex forms that can emerge in people’s personalities.
“Condescension, for example, is something that crops up in a lot of teams that can be really difficult to address.
“It might be someone’s personality. They can be a little patronising, but they don’t mean to.”
In scenarios where it feels more like a personality trait rather than a fleeting behaviour, come to the conversation with specific examples, says Johnson.
Instead of saying, “I think you’re a know-it-all”, she suggests saying something like:
“Sometimes when I’m presenting my ideas to you, I’ve noticed you respond by saying things like, ‘We’ve already tried that’ or ‘That’s now how we’ve done it before’, or I feel like you’re already three steps ahead of me. It makes me feel like my ideas aren’t important. Can we chat about a new approach so I can feel like you’re hearing my ideas and you feel like you’re passing on important information?’
“You’re not drawing a conclusion. You’re not making an assumption. You’re just saying, ‘Here’s what happened in that conversation and how it made me feel.'”
This is also a great way to diffuse any highly emotional responses from them, as you’re not directly attacking their personality but telling them how it made you feel – they can’t argue with that.
People want feedback
“Let’s say your perfectionism was making other people feel like their work wasn’t good enough. You’d want to know, right?
“If one of the things that is stopping you from having honest conversations is that you’re afraid of upsetting them, it’s good to remember that you’re doing them a service.”
Johnson’s final piece of advice for HR professionals is that it’s not your responsibility to solve internal conflicts.
“HR’s role is to coach employees on how to have difficult conversations. That’s a big gap in most organisations.
“Healthy teams have tension. It’s a normal part of life. We need to help people to use tools that make these conversations more normal.
“We cannot avoid annoying behaviours altogether. That’s a really important thing to call out because a culture with no conflict is completely unrealistic. We just need to get better at dealing with it and making it a normal part of our team conversations.”
Want to become better at having difficult conversations? This short course from AHRI will equip you with the necessary skills.