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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Inoculating against Interruptions

Maybe it’s really an interruption, and maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s your job.

Maybe much or most of what you do every day could be considered interruptions. The general nature of it might be unplanned, but it’s not unintentional. Your job is the way it is because people – including you – decided to make it that way.

That doesn’t mean you sat down and created a helter-skelter strategy for your work. Strategy usually isn’t done that way, however much we may try. Our habitual performance in the workplace is, for each of us, the product of countless decisions about what to do in response to competing priorities.

If you have a job description, it would be unusual if it actually defines what you do all the time. Much of your moment-to-moment activity may well be outside the sphere of your generally recognized duties. One-off tactics can accumulate into a workstyle.

An interruption, in practical terms, is an uninvited intrusion into your attention, a demand that you now focus on something that takes you away from what you were doing. These interruptions are not necessarily bad – a fire alarm can save your life. Providing help or expert knowledge to a co-worker is positive for the two of you, and for the organization.

The People Priority

I once did a questionnaire survey of a few dozen people whose work included interfacing with the public as well as handling paperwork and supporting specialists in a profession. The single most bothersome part of the work, in their survey responses, was “interruption” by the members of the public.

In their eyes, when someone showed up at the front counter, it took them away from their more important responsibilities in managing records and assisting the professionals. Yet, a balanced evaluation of their role could have placed a higher value on representing their organizations to the public. Such a calculation was not included in their thinking, though.

This is not just a matter of definition. It points to the importance of clearly understanding the priorities in one’s work, and establishing attitudes and behaviors that reflect the relative importance of various parts of the work.

Our relationships with workplace associates are an important part of this consideration. People frequently ask each other for help or information. If you just can’t bring yourself to say no, then you’ll say yes. The importance of not saying no generally outweighs the importance of what you now can’t do instead.

If, on the other hand, you place a high value on completing a large volume of task work, and on doing it very well, you’re likely to discourage co-workers from bothering you. This dries up collaboration, which is just fine with you, if you’re a seriously task-driven person. You prefer being left alone – which may or not be best for the work of the organization.

Taking Control

Much of the time our attitudes, and the actions that result from them, are developed without a lot of thought. We may gradually organize our workplace behavior on the basis of separately-occurring choices between our preferences and the demands of our work, our managers and our colleagues.

Moments of conflict and expressions of appreciation can have inappropriate weight in the absence of a well-thought-out and disciplined set of workstyle priorities. Habits developed under one set of policies in one workplace often are transported unchanged into a new and different environment.

However we got our attitudes and values, they strongly affect our idea of what constitutes an interruption – and what we do about it.

Taking personal control of our attitudes and values is the secret to success in meeting our work responsibilities and contributing to a productive and harmonious workplace. You do this by taking three related actions:

Getting clear on your job responsibilities

Organizing your work

Building workplace relationships

Understanding, Organizing, Communicating

The first, understanding your duties, is basic. That’s what you’re there for. So you make sure you negotiate with your boss specific understandings about what you are to do and what it is to produce. You make sure to keep the channels open, for ongoing readings on how you’re doing on the details and the broader requirements of the job.

The second area, organizing the work, starts with making it your business to know and influence everybody’s expectations throughout the range of your assignments. Then you plan your weeks and days to ensure you can meet preset deadlines with agreed-upon deliverables.

This level of clarity in the first two areas is an essential foundation for success in the third, building relationships. The most valued colleague is the person who always does what he/she has promised, so doing your job well and on time makes for excellent relationships.

Once you can get the right things done on time, you have earned the flexibility and mental balance to respond thoughtfully to co-worker needs and initiatives.

Obviously, you can’t always give people your undivided attention whenever they seek it. You might be into something that really takes priority over your co-worker’s need. Now you must add even more skills.

Your competent management of your workload must include the ability for instant analysis of relative importance – where should my focus go right now? – as well as the communication skill to redirect or reschedule new requests without damage to the relationships involved.

You might explain the situation to a requester, and set a future moment for this new discussion. Keeping that date will be a top priority. People, treated respectfully, understand and appreciate this kind of response. You’ve actually improved the warmth and productivity of the relationship.

Interruptions = Opportunities

You can do these things because, understanding the working components of competence in the workplace, you take the time to learn how to negotiate the conditions and expectations of the job, plan and discipline your workdays, and nurture truly productive collaboration.

When you do it right, your old interruptions become your new opportunities.

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