Beth Wonson & Company

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Empowering Executives, Emerging Leaders, Teams, & Individuals For Over 20 Years

Hey, Got a Minute?

I saw a great sign once at the Social Security office in Massachusetts. It said, “Only have a quick question? So does everyone else. Go to the back of the line!”

It wasn’t great customer service perhaps, but if you are the one everyone comes to asking, “Hey got a minute for a quick question?” I bet you wish you could have this sign over your desk!

It is hard to focus when you are constantly getting pinged, binged, or tapped on the shoulder with someone who just needs a quick second. And not only is it hard to focus, but the research shows that you have a higher chance of making mistakes and experiencing more stress and exhaustion.

Do you find yourself getting frustrated by colleagues who should know the answer to a question (or at least be able to find it) but instead they holler across the room to you?

Or perhaps you are the person who prefers to ask someone versus look something up yourself?

Regardless of which side you are on, I hear all the time from people who are tired of continual interruptions by others seeking information that they could access on their own. I know one person who was the longest-term employee in a department with high turnover and she decided to leave because she just couldn’t stand the thought of training another new staff person. “They are all great people. But I’m frankly too exhausted to answer the same questions all over again as someone new learns the ropes.”

When I hear this complaint I'm never sure if the person wants me to tell them how to train staff better or if they want to do the work it takes to break their own pattern—the behavior that creates the question-asking monster. They create this pattern by answering quickly so they can get the person off their backs and return to their own tasks.

Either way, they are frequently shocked by my response which is, “You’ve trained them that way. And now you must un-train them.”

What? How can that be?

Consider the scenario I witnessed last night at the grocery store. The young man working the register in my lane didn’t know the code for my red cabbage (the tag had fallen off).

He yells, “Hey Lisa. What’s the code for red cabbage?”

Without missing a beat, Lisa—a busy checker two registers over—hears her name, pauses, looks up and shifts her brain from the task she is doing to processing the question.

“Oh, red cabbage. That’s 603.”

“Thanks, Lisa” he says as he turns to me. “Every time anyone needs a code, we just ask her! Lisa has every code memorized. She’s awesome.”

Yes. She is awesome. And according to the research, she is also more mentally weary than she needs to be, more stressed than she could be, and her chances of making a mistake in her own work just increased.

Why? Every time our brain is interrupted from our primary task or area of focus, it has to make a costly shift. The Journal of Experimental Psychology finds that a 2.8 second interruption can double the rate of errors. And the International Journal of Stress Management finds that workers who are frequently interrupted report a 9% higher exhaustion rate than workers who don’t experience interruptions.

A study by Basex, Inc. in 2005* estimated that employees asking, “Hey, got a minute?” cost United States businesses over $288 billion a year in lost time and errors. Imagine the cost today, now that interruptions are compounded by texts, instant messages, and all other kinds of bings and pings. (Just as I was typing this my cell phone pinged. I felt compelled to tell the person I’m busy and will respond later, and then it took me several minutes to remember where I left off in my editing!)

The upside is that Lisa may feel more emotionally satisfied and fulfilled at her job because she is viewed as the expert, but that role is actually making her more tired and less effective! The evidence shows that the constant stress on her system may be impacting health and wellness, putting Lisa at risk for more sick days and visits to health care providers.

The true cost of interruptions is supported by the findings of an empirical study titled “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” by Gloria Mark, et al.** Researchers found that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, and while this can be perceived as more productive and positive, it comes at a price to the employee and to the company’s bottom line.

So if you’ve become the “go-to” expert, how can you break the established pattern?

The first step is acknowledging that you’ve created the pattern. By consistently providing an instant and accurate answer, you have reinforced that you are the easiest path for people to get what they need.

In breaking the pattern, you will empower self-sufficiency in others.

To do so, use these strategies:

1. Boundary setting Let people know that although you’ve been happy to help them in the past, you have just learned the impact interruptions have on energy, accuracy, and stress level.

2. Set criteria for the timing of questions. A helpful guideline could be, “Unless the building is burning down or someone is at risk of life or limb, please write your questions down, and we will meet for 20 minutes at the end of the day. During that time, my sole focus will be to answer all your questions.”

This can be particularly helpful when you are training a new person. Train them from day one on how you want to be treated. You also will have the time to provide the context and background information on the answer, helping them develop their own problem-solving processes. It’s a win-win.

3. Redirect Let the person know where they can find the answer, and direct them to that source, once.

Most of the time they already know where they can find the answer, it is just easier (and more socially rewarding) to ask instead of research. Lisa could respond with, “It’s on the list, right under ‘cabbage.’”

At first it may feel like it takes more time and energy to redirect than to say, “603,” but the long-term payoff is they will learn the information for themselves. And you will help them break the habit.

I recommend that you give them fair warning, “Mike, I’ve always been happy to help you with codes, but I’m realizing the impact it is having on my work flow so I’m going to start redirecting you to find the codes yourself.” That alone may solve the issue.

4. Answer with a question “Where do you think you might look for that information?” “That is an interesting question. Let me know how you find the answer.” “Interesting problem. What steps are you going to take to resolve it?”

5. Check yourself The next time a question pops into your head and you feel compelled to interrupt someone with “Got a second?” or yell to the person across the room for an answer, consider what your interruption may be costing them in terms of health, wellness, happiness, and performance. Model the behavior you desire in others. Write it down for later, schedule a meeting, or find the answer yourself.

In most business environments, the best way to increase profits is to reduce wasteful spending of our most valuable and non-renewable resource: time. Spend the next few days noticing how many times you interrupt or are interrupted! Try the suggestions above, and let me know how it goes!