Thank God It's Monday™ e-zine by Roxanne Emmerich
Forward to a friend Issue: 102
November 1, 2010
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Ask Roxanne!

Dear Roxanne,
I'm one of those people who can't work effectively with a lot of distractions. I don't need a monastery, but I just can't do my job well in the crossfire of ten conversations and a three-ring circus, which pretty well describes the cubicle space in our office. How can I tactfully get the main offenders to quiet down?

- Gary F.

Dear Gary,
I'm sure you've fantasized about a method or two! But since hurling ninja stars at your colleagues would get you arrested, let's start simple and direct. I've laid out a plan in this week's column. Give it a try, and let me know if it brings things down to a dull roar.

- Roxanne

Do you have a question about how to handle a situation or a relationship in the workplace? Ask Roxanne!


Dealing With Distractions in the Workplace

The guy who sings Barry Manilow songs all day—badly. The gal who shares every detail of her weekend for hours at a time on the phone. The cubicle neighbor who can't seem to find the volume knob—on her own big mouth.

They don't mean to be annoying. In most cases, they don't even KNOW they are. But the day-in and day-out effect of distractions from clueless coworkers can take a very real toll on your productivity, your concentration, and your state of mind.

What's the best way to address this kind of workplace water torture?

First I'll tell you what NOT to do. If it's in the category of cluelessness, don't bother your manager with it. It needs to be addressed, but this is a do-it-yourselfer, and you should never ask a manager to take care of something you can do yourself.

You can also forget about subtle hinting. If a person is oblivious enough to do these things in the first place, he or she is way too oblivious to catch a subtle hint. And nothing will boil your blood more than missed hints on top of clueless behavior.

The answer? Be direct. Calm and polite, yes, but crystal clear. Don't huff and puff and get angry—remember that there's seldom an intention to annoy. Instead, go to the oblivious offender and follow this formula:

"When you do (the observed behavior), it creates (the problem). I'm asking that you (discontinue behavior). Do I have your commitment?"

For example: If a coworker is always yakking too loudly, say, "When you talk so loudly, it makes it hard for me to concentrate and I'm embarrassed when talking with clients because I can hardly hear them. I ask that you use your 'inside voice' and keep it low enough that the rest of us can get our work done productively. Do I have your commitment?"

She probably didn't even know she was creating a problem, so you may want to acknowledge that.

After your talk, she may forget when trying to tone it down. If she goes back to her "loud norm," simply bring it up again with a hand signal that reminds her of her commitment.

And ahem... make sure the hand signal could be used in church! Remember that she almost certainly means no harm, and you don't want to sow any unnecessary seeds of resentment—you just want a reasonable place to get your work done, and an ongoing feud won't get you that.


Tips to Turn Down the Volume in the Workplace

  1. Take a deep breath. If you go at the problem with your blood up, you'll create a whole new distraction—a running feud.
  2. Identify the culprit and the exact nature of the distraction. If you approach by saying "You always talk too loud" and it's really just when she's on the phone, she'll think you're plain wrong and tune you out.
  3. Assume that the perp has no idea, which is almost always the case.
  4. Ask politely for a commitment to change, AND ask if there's anything you need to change yourself.
  5. Catch the person talking at a normal level (or not singing, or whatever the issue) and flash a thumbs-up!

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