Shushing My Boss

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about telling a boss to be quiet: ” Have I really screwed up?? How do I fix it?

On Tuesday of last week, I had just gotten off of a long conference call with my Operations Director (I’m the Communications Director) and we went back to our desks, which are side by side, to discuss strategy. We got on another conference call with a leader in our industry who we thought could help. Our Member Director came out of her office, to our desks, to say something and I put my index finger up to my lips making the “shush” face, not saying anything. I figured she did not know we were on a conference call with an important business associate and didn’t want her to say anything not associated with the call.

I didn’t think anything of it until today, Monday (six days after), when she asked me into her office to talk about something. She said that she had something that was bothering her and she thought it would go away but it hasn’t and she wanted to get it out in the open. So, she told me the above scenario, that I shushed her and that it was rude and disrespectful. She said she never wanted to have that happen again. I said that I was sorry and that I never would want to do that to someone or make someone feel that way. I thanked her for telling me because I’ve noticed that I can get very focused/intense on something and not realize that I’m being rude/disrespectful when someone tries to help (which I see as an interruption).

So, I was just confronted by her 30 minutes ago and it is eating away at me. She said she wanted to get it out and that be the end of it but I’m wondering if I should think on it for a couple days and send her and email or talk to her about it later on? I feel like so many people after getting confronted by something they do, they ball it up inside and hope it just goes away. I want to do this the right way and make sure she understands that my intention is to truly become a better teammate and coworker, especially in those situations. It also doesn’t help that our Member Director has been here nearly 20 years, and I’m fresh out of college, been here for 2 years so I’m sure she saw it as extremely disrespectful more so than if the roles were reversed.

My gut reaction is to say something in a couple days to the effect of, “Our conversation the other day has been on my mind a lot. Specifically, how I made you feel and that I need to improve for the long term and be a better colleague and teammate.” Have I really screwed up?? How do I fix it? Please help! Thank you again for your consideration.

Signed, Shushed the Boss

Dear Shushed the Boss:

You have described your inner turmoil well and more. By that I mean you have spelled out how little interpersonal rifts can play on like a broken record in your head. Your question is: Should you not let this reprimand by your Member Director, whom you say is 20 years older and I assume is your boss, be the end of it as she said it should? There’s no sure “fix it” answer to your question, but I will pose several impressions that might help you answer your question.

-The fact that this individual told you not to shush her again was a reprimand meant to clarify that she was your superior.

-Her interpretation of your shush-face was a mistake, but what you did, in order to not have your telephone conversation interrupted, could have been seen as disrespectful. Her misinterpretation follows the rule of thumb you undoubtedly know as Communications Director that to misunderstand is the rule rather than the exception. So failure to think about that indicates that this Member Director, after pondering your shush, decided to spell out her own rule; “Don’t shush me. Don’t shush me if I am boss and you are not.” Such an unspoken general organization rule of authority, she decided needed to be told you.

– Consequently you now know that lines of authority are important to her and probably that is the culture of your workplace. Over time interactions with her likely will lessen the power-distance of I am boss and you are the bossed. You will find an alternative way to signal “I’m on the phone and need quiet.”

– Now probably is not the best time to re-surface this incident in detail; however, because you are stressed over it, you might get it off your chest just as she did. I like the way you put it in your last paragraph: “My gut reaction is to say something in a couple days to the effect of, “Our conversation the other day has been on my mind a lot. Specifically, how I made you feel and that I need to improve for the long term and be a better colleague and teammate.'” Such a brief statement should then evolve to a constructive conversation about how you two might interact; about when and how she does and doesn’t want to be talked to and about and also about when and how you want to be talked to and about. (Notice I have added the phrase “talked about”.) It is a mistake to vent our gut-felt uneasiness about another person to third parties, perhaps to coworkers.Almost inevitably gossip about another (in this case your boss’ misinterpreting) gets back to the target of the uneasiness, and consequently the whole matter escalates rather than fades away.

– One pro-active way that a boss-bossed interaction can build effective protocols is to collaboratively define their relationship in do and don’t communication rules. Most often very wise bosses set aside in time-out sessions for this purpose. Such time-out sessions are particularly beneficial to work groups that are to operate as teams.

-Finally, let me congratulate you for a desire to not allow small sores fester. From time to time in the course of a career that entails working with others, we encounter behaviors that frustrate. That is to suggest we must determine what is important enough to surface and what is best not belabored.

These thoughts are embedded in my signature sentence: Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. I predict with your drive and concern for good working relationships that you will have many fruitful years in your chosen career. If you find time after a few weeks, do feel free to update us on what you elect to do and how it works.

William Gorden