Piece of Work is a weekly column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.
Someone I’m close to has a co-worker who won’t leave her alone. In order to protect their privacy, let’s call her Pam, and the annoying co-worker Dwight. In this scenario, Pam and Dwight are peers. (Stay with me!) Pam, much like The Office’s Pam, works at the front desk, a particularly high-risk setting because her co-workers walk past like ten times a day. And Dwight, though he is not her boss, or even tied to Pam’s job in any way, stops at Pam’s desk at least four of those times. Every day. Which works out to about 20 unwanted desk visits per work week.
To some extent, answering stupid questions is part of Pam’s job. But Dwight has too many stupid questions, which are stupider than everyone else’s. Pam has tried to signal her disinterest in meaningless office patter by being curt, averting her eyes, and trying to look busy, but nothing’s worked. When someone’s irritating behavior doesn’t quite rise to the level of HR reporting, but it also makes it harder to do your job, what should you do? We asked a couple of experts for their ideas.
Talk to a trusted co-worker.
As a first step toward resolution, Robert Sutton, organizational psychologist and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, suggests utilizing what he calls a workplace’s “gossip network” to get more information, and maybe even a messenger. “Try to figure out if there’s a social network connection with somebody who can get this guy the message that he’s annoying her,” says Sutton. “I’m a big believer in finding out who knows who, who you can get the message to.”
This can work in two ways: In the best-case scenario, you find someone who can tactfully solve the problem for you. And if you can’t find that, you might at least find a sympathetic ear. A general rule vis-à-vis annoying people is that if they’re annoying you, they’re probably annoying other people, too. Having someone to vent with can help alleviate some of that frustration.
Have a direct conversation with the person bugging you.
When nonverbal cues aren’t enough, you’re probably dealing with a person with a self-awareness problem, says Sutton — and when that’s the case, unfortunately, you might have to be a little more direct. “You can say, ‘I’m really sorry, I know you mean well, but you’re coming to my desk a lot and it’s undermining my ability to do my job,’” says Sutton. If this makes you want to die, you’re not alone, and Sutton acknowledges that it isn’t possible to have this conversation for everyone — especially if the annoying person is your superior.
There are, however, other, less-humiliating things you can say, says Alan Cavaiola, clinical psychologist and author of Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal With Dysfunctional People on the Job, who suggests setting boundaries with a set of stock responses. “Something along the lines of ‘I’m working on a deadline right now, I better get back to this,’ or ‘Let me get back to you on that,’” can work wonders, says Cavaiola. The main goal, he says, is not to reinforce the annoying behavior — so if a co-worker is always stopping by your desk, and you don’t want him to, you have to get him out of there as quickly as possible.
And in cases where the annoying person is bugging you over Slack, Gchat, or other chatting service? For the love of God, IGNORE them. “A lot of times people feel compelled to answer a text or an email [right away], but I think in that instance it’s almost better to allow yourself some slack,” says Cavaiola. “You don’t have to respond right away.” Or at all, I would venture to add.
Alert the appropriate authorities.
If strategies No. 1 and No. 2, on top of any number of dirty looks and eye-rolls, don’t do the trick, it’s probably time to talk to HR and/or your boss. If you do end up going that route, try to have some sort of documentation that shows just how disruptive your annoying co-worker is being. “Suppose that [Pam] could document the number of minutes, so she could show that in one week he had stopped by her desk 40 times, costing her 200 minutes,” says Sutton. When you frame your issue in terms of a disruption to productivity, and you have some kind of evidence, your boss or HR department is much likelier to take the issue seriously.
If you do make a complaint, and you have any allies from your initial gossip search, see if they’d be willing to stand behind you. “To the extent you can document [the behavior], and have a posse of other people to back you up, that’s the situation where people tend to be the most successful in going to an authority figure,” says Sutton.
Finally, if all else fails: Pretend you’re a sociologist studying annoying co-workers.
If you’re unable (or unwilling) to confront your annoying co-worker situation directly, and you don’t think it would be useful to alert an authority, Sutton suggests trying to rework your mind-set using techniques inspired by cognitive behavioral therapy. (“I call these Jedi mind tricks to protect your soul, but it’s basically cognitive behavioral therapy, just at the office,” he explains.)
If you can decide that your personal Dwight’s behavior is amusing rather than annoying, that can help, says Sutton. And if you can’t do so in the present, try to imagine your future perspective, looking back — a process called temporal distancing. “When somebody’s bothering you, imagine that you’re looking back on it from the future, either an hour later, a day later, or a year later, and say to yourself, It really won’t be so bad,” says Sutton. Sure, today you want to scream into your cubicle wall, but in a year, maybe, this could make for prime happy-hour storytelling.
And finally, if you’d rather take a clinical approach, you could try a little make believe. “Try to see yourself as somebody, as a doctor who studies assholes and jerks, and to view the person as an especially interesting specimen,” says Sutton. A doctor, or the writer for a popular half-hour workplace sitcom, even. It’s just like Nora Ephron said: Everything is copy. Even (especially?) your insanely irritating co-workers.