Dear Office Politics,
I work as a Graphic Designer and while I love my job, I hate my work environment.
I occupy a cubicle at the back of a large area and my problem is the people all the way on the other side of the room. They scream constantly and tend to get very personal, they are always yelling my name out and trying to involve me in conversations that have nothing to do with me. My job involves a lot of focus so I need a professional atmosphere. It’s a mother/daughter team and you hear conversations from what’s for dinner to who they don’t like. I complained once and the person told them everything that I said and it created a lot of drama and stress for me. I’m at the end of my rope so I need advice on how to handle this very delicate but frustrating situation.
OFFICE-POLITICS ADVISER ERIKA ANDERSEN
I feel your pain! I was just sitting in a coffee shop today, working on my computer, and there were two people in the corner yukking it up and talking really loud. It was frustrating and hard to concentrate — and I wasn’t even at work!
So, what to do? First, let’s talk about the difference between complaints and requests.
A complaint is a negative description of someone else’s behavior, and the negative impact it has – often exaggerated for effect. (“You are so inconsiderate by leaving dirty dishes in the sink all the time .”)
A request is a neutral request to change a behavior, often including a rationale for change; that is, why you’re making the request. (“Could you please wash your dishes? It seems fair to me that we each clean up after ourselves. ”)
Complaints generally create resistance, defensiveness, ill feeling. Requests, on the other hand, often result in change – especially when they’re combined with an “offer.” (I’ll explain that in a minute.)
It sounds as though you haven’t actually requested that these folks behave differently – you’ve simply complained to a third party… which never works well. It’s usually even less effective than complaining directly to the person involved.
Here’s what I suggest.
Think about how you’d phrase a request to these folks to change their behavior – be neutral, and focus purely on describing the behavior you’d like to see. How about something like, “I’d like to ask you to talk more quietly when you’re at work. When you talk and laugh loudly, I have a hard time concentrating.” It might be a little embarrassing to say (and to hear), but it will work a heck of a lot better than complaining.
And if you combine it with an offer to do something for them, they’ll be even more likely to fulfill your request. (That’s where the “offer” part comes in.) What’s something you might be doing that’s bugging them, that you could offer to do differently? Once you think of it, here’s how the request/offer might sound: “Hi, Mom and Daughter such-and-such. I’d like to request something of you: could you talk more quietly when you’re at work? When you talk and laugh loudly, I have a hard time concentrating. Now, in return, I know that when I ______, you guys don’t like it very much. So, how about a trade – I’ll stop doing ___ if you talk more softly.”
In my experience, when you approach people in a respectful, neutral way like this, it’s unlikely to make the situation worse. In fact, I suspect it will improve. And if it does improve, remember to acknowledge and thank them for complying with your request… that will make it more likely they’ll continue to do it.
Let us know how it goes. Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.
Erika Andersen, Author
Erika Andersen is the author of Growing Great Employees, newly released in paperback, which is a Kirkus Reviews recommended business book for 2007. Erika Andersen and her colleagues at Proteus International, the company she founded in 1990, offer practical approaches for individuals and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for-future. Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on vision and strategy, executive coaching, and culture change. She has served as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and senior executives of corporations like MTV Networks, Molson Coors Brewing, Rainbow Media Holdings, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Comcast Corporation. Erika is an inaugural author of the Penguin Speakers Bureau, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Industry Week, Investors’ Business daily, and Fortune.