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3 Ways You Can Win Back Productivity Against Distracting Coworkers

3 Ways You Can Win Back Productivity Against Distracting Coworkers, article by Dr Nadine Greiner PhD

Workplaces are magnets for distractions. They can be found in every nook and cranny of the office. The most prominent culprit? Your coworkers. According to a report by Olivet Nazarene University, 100% of workers get annoyed with their coworkers. Dealing with a coworker can prove very challenging. The situation becomes even more difficult if the perpetrator is a manager or a superior. Fortunately, the situation can be effectively addressed by adhering to a three-pronged strategy.

1. Use subtle (and then not so subtle) hints

Your first line of defense against distracting managers, superiors, or other coworkers should be the use of subtle hints. These cues can alert the employee that you are occupied and unavailable to attend to distractions. Employees may not be cognizant of the fact that their behavior is not appreciated or well-received by you or others.

If, for example, your boss consistently prattles on in conversation with you, try wearing headphones or adding a “do not disturb” time block on your public email calendar. If the situation does not improve, dampen the level of subtlety. Instead of wearing earbud headphones, for example, wear full-sized over-ear headphones (even if you don't intend to listen to music). Instead of adding a do not disturb block to your calendar, place a physical sign on your desk or update your chat status to 'Busy'.

2. Identify the cause of the behavior and attempt to address it

There’s a very real risk that your coworkers will not process your subtle (or not so subtle) hints. Your next line of defense should be to attempt to understand the underlying cause of the distraction. Your talkative boss may, in fact, be lonely and looking for attention (after all, research has demonstrated that loneliness is more prevalent at the top).

If you detect that your boss or coworker is suffering from workplace loneliness, consider scheduling a happy hour, online game, or another type of team-bonding activity. The opportunity to intermingle and build relationships may quell your boss' loneliness. Alternatively, perhaps your boss or coworker is suffering from boredom. They distract you and others on account of the fact that they don't have more important projects or engagements to attend to. In this case, consider discreetly assigning your boss some “homework”. Ask him or her for feedback on a project you've been working on or recommend that he or she read the latest issue of The Economist Magazine and circle back with his or her opinion. Diverting your boss' attention will leave less time and opportunity for spewing distractions.

3 Ways You Can Win Back Productivity Against Distracting Coworkers, quote by Dr Nadine Greiner PhD

3. Directly confront the perpetrator

Your last line of defense should be a direct confrontation. First, explain the situation to your manager, superior, or other colleague. Explain, for example, that a constant pinging of emails prevents you from completing your work. There’s a valid chance your colleague isn’t aware of the ill-effects of his or behavior. Bill Driscoll of staffing agency Accountemps explains, “Sometimes it’s just an awareness issue… Your coworker may not realize that everyone can hear their personal business.”

When engaging in confrontation, it's typically best to highlight specific examples of the offending behavior. You should also clearly describe and explain the impact that the behavior has on you and others. You want the discussion to be, “Here’s what happened and here’s the difference it made”. You can role-play with a peer prior to the confrontation in order to decide on the most appropriate tone and words.

We can’t often choose our bosses or coworkers. Distracting employees are inevitable. The aforementioned strategy will empower you to confront your distracting coworkers (regardless of their seniority level) without acting like a jerk. Your personal and professional wellbeing depends on your ability to suppress distractions. As Adam Hochschild once remarked, "Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short."


I care deeply about helping leaders and advancing the human resources profession. I have authored two books, The Art of Executive Coaching and Stress-less Leadership, and maintain a regular blog. I am also a leading contributor for The Society For Human Resources Management, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Association of Talent Development.

As an active animal advocate, I donate 100% of all book proceeds to animal welfare.

The opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my publishers or employers.


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