The next time you catch yourself complaining about co-workers’ behavior in the workplace, pause and think, “Am I doing something to teach or encourage those around me to behave in this way?” In general, we teach what we allow.
Perhaps one of the most common forms of teaching what you allow is allowing people to frequently interrupt you when you are trying to focus on your important priorities. I certainly am not suggesting that you treat your co-workers rudely; however, it is totally appropriate to tell them you are busy at times and ask them to come back later (your boss might be an exception to this rule – but maybe not). Otherwise you, in effect, teach people that it is fine to interrupt you at any time for any reason.
One of the benefits of a little daily planning is that it will help you be very specific about why you cannot spend time with an interrupter. You can specifically point to the project you are focusing on and ask them if what they need is more important. Their request for your attention might be more important on rare occasions, but in most cases a reasonable person will likely honor your request and come back later, if at all. If you have no specific plans and do not clearly prioritize your work, odds are you will be fighting off squeakiest wheels or randomly handling things as they become more urgent. In this state of mind, you will almost always default to the interruption. It will probably seem like a welcome relief. If you are not careful with this teach what you allow stuff, you will teach people that it is fine to miss agreed upon deadlines, to show up late for your meetings and generally ignore other agreed upon commitments.
Some people take things a step further and actually invite people to interrupt them. A candy dish or interesting trinket on your desk within easy view of people passing by serves as bait to some people. These things, in effect, invite people to come in, have a snack, play around with your trinket and visit with you.
All this becomes especially troubling when you take over new responsibilities. Pay close attention to what your predecessor allowed (tardiness, long lunches, excessive socializing, etc.). It is best to go ahead and clarify how you plan to operate differently as soon as possible after you take over. It probably will not help you win any popularity contests if your predecessor was overly lenient; however, after a few days of allowing behavior that you disapprove of, most people will assume you are OK with it. Here is an interesting saying that a friend of mine shared with me years ago, “Absence of criticism is implied approval to most people.”
No one wants to work in a draconian environment, so I am not implying that you should never socialize or that informal interactions are not important in the workplace. As with most things in life, reasonable boundaries are important.
Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.