my boss says I shouldn’t expect people to tell me when they’re too busy to talk

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A reader writes:

I recently received my six-month probationary performance review from my supervisor. I am a new attorney, but spent three years before law school and most of my legal internships working in office settings. While I anticipated some of the concerns about my performance, I felt blindsided by much of the feedback, especially the review of my interpersonal skills.

In one paragraph, it said: “She comes into my or colleagues’ offices without inquiring about that person’s availability. These interactions can progress to an extended social conversation that disrupts the work of her colleague. While she is always invited to come see me in person or reach out to colleagues, she should make sure that the person has time to meet with her or that she is not interrupting deadlines.”

Whenever possible, I check our shared calendars, but because I am located in a small annex office down the hall, I sometimes stop by when in the main office because I am already nearby. I always knock before entering another person’s office, even when the door is open, and wait until I receive confirmation that the individual is available. Whenever someone replies that they are busy or have a deadline, I immediately reply that I will come back at a better time and leave the office.

When I asked my supervisor why he or other colleagues would not tell me they are not available, he replied that it is the responsibility of the person initiating the conversation to determine whether the other person is available and that I shouldn’t expect people to tell me that they might be busy. He also suggested that I read the body language of my colleagues to determine whether they have time to talk.

As a result of my performance review, I am now on an additional 90-day probation period, and HR prepared a series of goals for me to follow, including “demonstrate respect for others in the workplace, which could be evidenced by checking about others’ availability when having an unscheduled meeting or interrupting their work.”

I am still struggling to understand why this issue belongs in my review in the first place. I’ve never worked in an office (including the U.S. Department of Justice) that discouraged stopping by a colleague’s office to ask a question. When I discussed this with trustworthy colleagues or friends in similar positions, everyone expressed their surprise at why this issue came up at all or why my supervisor feels that I behaved inappropriately.

Is this expectation that my supervisor communicated to me normal? I just don’t understand how I am expected to read body language, but a colleague does not have to say anything when they are too busy to discuss work? I want to succeed in this organization, but I just feel very lost as to how to interact with anyone now.

It’s pretty odd feedback — not the “you’re interrupting people too much” part, because sometimes that’s a thing that’s really true, but the “don’t expect people to tell you they’re busy” part.

I think there are three possibilities here:

1. This is about your manager, not you. What else do you know about him? Does he generally seem like a reasonable person with good judgment? If the answer to that is no, that makes it more likely that this is just a weirdness of his. Also, does he seem to like you? What’s your sense of how he thinks you’re doing overall? If he has a list of concerns about your work, it’s possible that this is connected to that — that he wants you more focused on work or something like that. And what do you know about how he navigates interrupting others and chit-chatting during the work day? Is he very rigid/closed-off in that regard? If so, he might just have odd expectations about how this stuff should work.

2. It’s possible that what he’s described to you is the culture of this particular office. Have you observed enough about the culture to have a good feel for what others do when they need something from someone else? Do they spontaneously drop by people’s offices, or seem to mainly use email to communicate, or schedule meetings in advance? If this office has particular conventions when it comes to interruptions, you’d need to sync up with those in order to fit in there.

3. It’s possible that you’re truly interrupting people more than you realize and/or you’re overstaying your welcome with social conversations after the work topic is over. If that’s the case, yes, people should tell you directly … but as we know from letters here, loads of people aren’t comfortable saying “well, I have to get back to work now” or otherwise cutting a conversation short. It’s possible that you haven’t been reading people’s cues about this and that your manager has heard feedback about it.

If none of these three jump out at you at being particularly likely, I’d proceed as if it’s #2. Assume for now that your office culture is one where you schedule interruptions, even if that’s less convenient, and that it’s one where people may not be into as much chit-chat as you’ve been used to previously. It might be that you simply don’t like a culture that operates that way, but I’d proceed that way for a while and see how it goes. (Conveniently, that’s what your boss is telling you to do anyway.)

Also, is there anyone at work who’s more senior and who you click with especially well? If you can find a mentor in your office, they could be a sounding board on some of this too (and would be well-positioned to tell you “yeah, that’s just our office culture” or “no, Fergus is being weird about this” or “yeah, you’re lingering in people’s offices more than you realize”).

Also, this wasn’t quite the point of your letter, but that 90-day probation extension with specific goals is something to take seriously (not that you aren’t). They’re saying “we want to preserve our ability to let you go quickly and without much process in case this doesn’t work out.” So make sure that you’re proactively checking with your manager about how things are going over the next three months (are you addressing his concerns, are there things he wants you doing differently, etc.)  … as well as doing some thinking on your own about how well you and this office are meshing. That might seem like a big leap from a single point in a performance evaluation — and maybe it is — but given everything you’ve said here, I want to be sure that you don’t get so hung up on figuring out how to fit them that you forget to think about how well they fit you

my boss says I shouldn’t expect people to tell me when they’re too busy to talk was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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December 5, 2016 at 02:06AM

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