I LOVE It When You Interrupt Me!

Dawn Burke Audacious Ideas, Dawn Hrdlica, Driving Productivity, HR

Actually, I don’t some of the time.  I work in an open office environment, which I must admit is pretty awesome 95 percent of the time.  The other 5 percent can get a little squirrelly, because, let’s face it, the world is made up of two types of people: a) those who don’t have boundaries and b) people who are afraid to tell the boundary-less people to back off.  That chemistry creates fertile breeding ground for “interrupters.”

Here is a list of interrupters I encounter:

  •  The Creeper: This is the dude who slowly sneaks up on you while you are in deep, deep concentration. He is very cunning. He can tell you are in a state of concentration: You have earbuds on, or your face is 5 inches from your laptop reading intently, or you have sweat on your brow from thinking so hard. He knows in his heart if he interrupts your flow it will scare the be-jezzus out of you. He’s prepared for that. But it doesn’t stop him. Before you know it, a clammy finger is tapping you on your shoulder. As you scream, the creeper coyly admits, “I was afraid I was going to scare you… but you gotta minute?” You’ve just been interrupted by The Creeper.
  • The Lingerer: I love this guy. The lingerer walks up to you while you are having a conversation with someone else and consciously decides to just wait around until you are done. Sometimes The Lingerer will literally, yet silently, insert himself in the conversation space. Other times he will just hang out ten feet away. The longer he lingers the weirder it gets. But he’s got all the time in the world. To stave away the awkward, you finally ask if you can help him. Doh! You’ve just been interrupted by The Lingerer.
  • The Bombardier: To this guy’s credit, he is persistent. The Bombardier has a question and will hit you from all sides until you respond. He usually starts with the trifecta: first an email, immediately followed with an instant message, then hits you up with a voicemail. When that doesn’t work, he calls the person sitting next to you to see where you are and, finally, he completes the bombardment personally—he walks over and morphs into the Creeper or Lingerer. You’ve just been interrupted by the Bombardier.
  • The Bathroom Stall Lobber: This one is the worst offender. Just the worst. You’re in the bathroom stall, minding your own, when someone lobs you a work question over the stall wall. This is so weird. How do you respond to that? “Give me a second to wipe and I’ll tell you all about that P & L statement.”  Or, “Can you speak up, I can’t hear you over the flushing?” What makes this particularly difficult is that if you don’t answer, it gets REALLY weird. 

 What to do:

  • Don’t be a jerk. Most aren’t trying to make your life miserable or annoy you. They are just trying to do their job.
  • Set boundaries. You can tell people nicely that you can’t talk right now. Some find this about as hard as finding a cure for cancer. Don’t make it hard. Most will appreciate it.
  • Give people your preferred method of communication. Some just need a redirect.
  • Don’t feel that bad. Sometimes we feel bad because someone walked all the way over from across the office to ask you something. That was their gamble to make.
  • Don’t accept meetings. Or be very selective with your meeting attendance. If you don’t have to be there, don’t accept.
  • Use do-not-disturb features on your technology. Most phone, instant messages and emails have some sort of “I’m not available” feature.

And remember this. If you get interrupted a lot, in many ways you should take it as a compliment. I read this quote from Colin Powell years ago and it has always stuck with me:

“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them.”

Remember, for most of you in HR, it is part of your job to be a problem solver and a question answerer. Be sure you are open for business most of the time, and set boundaries for the times you simply can’t be interrupted.

Dawn Burke

Dawn Burke, founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at DawnHBurke.com and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.