Q. I’m in my second year in the communications function of a nonprofit organization. Several of us jointly work on the same projects, but a couple of people–especially my supervisor–don’t carry their own weight. They miss deadlines and distract the group by their preoccupation with non-relevant discussions, which increases the workload of the rest of us who often must work late. I like the place and don’t really want to quit, but I’m frustrated and would like some advice.
A. Early in my career, I had a boss who routinely walked into my office at 5 p.m. almost every evening and talked about his life, often for an hour at a time. As his lips moved, I only thought about how much further behind I was getting on the work that he had assigned me earlier that day–and how late I would be for dinner with my wife and newborn son. I became resentful of his interruptions, but I loved my job between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. so I needed a game plan to protect my sanity. I approached someone who once worked for the guy prior to my arrival at the company. Here’s the plan we developed:
Chicken Strategy: Since he walked into the office like clockwork at 5 p.m., I initially slipped out of the office by 4:50 p.m. Not being around at “talk time” might break his habit or drive him to another office. It didn’t work and I feared he’d think I was slacking off by leaving early, so I started planning meetings for 4 and 4:30 in order to be busy when the clock struck 5. This worked beautifully until I didn’t plan a meeting at the bewitching hour, and he wandered back into my office. (By the way, closing my door didn’t work since he’d ask my assistant if I was on the phone or meeting with someone–and then walked in.)
Re-direct Discussion: Rather than let him set the discussion agenda, I began “welcoming” him to my office, saying: “I’m glad you stopped by, I would like to pick your brain about (specific job-related topic).” Bingo. This made his visits work related and his drop-ins became less frequent. (If others on your team are causing distractions or meandering off topic, try to bring the discussion back to the task at hand. With peers, you can be more direct than with bosses. Always do so in a positive way rather than appear agitated.)
Keep Working: As I got more comfortable with my job and position within the company, I became more direct by letting my boss and others know what I had on my plate to get done. . . “so, I hope you don’t mind if I continue working while you talk.”
Talk to the Boss: Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to the final plank in our strategy–complain to his supervisor. This is risky business that should only be done in the severest of situations. I did, however, mention the matter in the 360-degree review of my supervisor and I know I wasn’t alone in doing so. Shortly afterwards, we observed a major change in his end-of-day office cruising.