Loud Gregarious People

Question:

I work in a lab where concentration is of the utmost importance. Two recent hires have disrupted the environment with non-stop gabbing, socializing and basic loud attention-seeking behavior. They are obviously somewhat neurotic and feel compelled to use work as a meeting place rather than a work place. When they get together (birds of a feather), it’s even more annoying. No one else seems to be intolerant or willing to call them out on this disruptive behavior–particularly their supervisors. But as a manager of a scientific group, I am sick of their obnoxious antics. How can I ask them to tone it down or should I discuss it with their supervisors or the VP of Human Resources. I don’t want to come off as mean-spirited, but these people lack common sense and consideration of others. Thanks for your advice.

Signed,

Annoyed


Answer:

Dear Annoyed:

Yes, you can. You can speak to them about what annoys you. Or you can discuss their obnoxious antics with their supervisors or VP of Human Resources. You have these two options or both and any others that you think might return your lab to a place where concentration is of the utmost importance. As you can see, I’ve used many of your own words in this paragraph. Why? To help you know I empathize with you and to reflect your anger with these recent hires. Work matters and some tasks require more concentration than others. You have a right to seek the kind of work environment that enables you and your co-workers to do the best possible quality work. You need to make it clear that you are not just annoyed, but you feel your performance suffers because of the loud and distracting talk. Before I address the several options that might resolve your annoyance, let me discuss for a moment the entry of new hires into an established work environment. It is natural because two newcomers have that in common that they would find socializing with each other satisfying. It is like you and another person walking in on an ongoing conversation and feeling it is easier to turn to one another than to be included. Until and unless newcomers to an on-going conversation are genuinely brought into it, they will find their interests turning to each other. Newcomers wonder if their ideas matter? To be sure part of feeling their participation in any conversation is wanted is their responsibility, but it also has much to do with those who are already taking and already know those in their circle. Newcomers to a conversing group, if they lack social skills, might push in and draw attention to themselves. The two new hires might lack good social skills. Apparently they have not read what is and isn’t appropriate in your lab. Possibly, the supervisors and co-workers at your lab didn’t orient these two new hires in ways that engaged them in the tasks that require concentration. You attribute their “non-stop gabbing, socializing and basic loud attention-seeking behavior” to being “somewhat neurotic.” And you might be right; however, might it also be possible that these two new hires simply have a different style; a notion that fun makes the day go faster and enhances the quality of performance? Could it be that the playfulness of some highly successful workplaces, such a Google, informs those of us with a Max Weber work ethic to loosen up. I’m sure in light of your description of the disruption you feel that such a notion is the farthest thing from your mind. Rather probably you have a series of annoyances playing and replaying in your head. I note that you categorize their behavior as ” non-stop gabbing, socializing and basic loud attention-seeking” and you don’t explicitly describe their behavior; what they say and do to get attention.

This is to suggest that what should matter to you and their supervisor is: Do these two new hires do the jobs they are assigned to and do they perform them well? And if and how do they disrupt others? Here are several approaches you can consider: 1. Direct intervention. Sharing with them your dismay over their incessant chatter and attention seeking. How you go about this can seem cranky. Or your speaking to them can be seen as not only meant to let them know how their behavior disturbs you, but also is intended to also alert them to the fact that they are being adversely perceived and such an impression can hurt their careers in your organization. 2. Indirect intervention. By pass the annoying two new hires and approach their supervisor. Firmly (since from what you say their supervisor seem not to be aware of their antics) request that she/he tell the two new hires of the need to keep the noise down. You might recommend to the supervisors that separating them would be a wise move. Here again how you communicate this concern will determine if you are seen as mean-spirited or concerned about your productivity and that of the lab. Before you go to their supervisor, you should first ask yourself if you would want someone to bypass you to complain about you to your boss or would you first want them to come to you? 3. Engage the lab more generally. You don’t indicate that your work environment is one that has a collective interest in its mission. Possibly it does and you simply are so irritated by the behavior of the two new hires that you failed to mention that. But few if any work groups cannot benefit from addressing their mission in a collective way. By this I mean talk about talk. Just as a sports team benefits from skull sessions before and after a game, so can a work group address what is going well and what frustrates its performance.

One way to do this is to candidly call together other managers and supervisors to say, “Gang, I think it is past time to review how things are going. When was the last time we huddled on our productivity and applauded what has gone well and talked about what frustrates our best?” Ones colleagues likely would then respond, because they aren’t dumb, “What’s really bothering you?” And you can spill your frustration about the loud and obnoxious behavior of the new hires, or you can play it more tactfully by saying, “Right, I have been unable to concentrate because the two new hires are incessantly loud, but I think the problem is more that we have not found a way to really engage them and bring them into improving the productivity of our lab.” Such talk should evolve into a problem-solving conversation of what might do that.

Work environments that enable effective solo and group work do not just happen. They are formed because of the work ethic that develops across the years. That ethic can be shaped, just as it is shaped in a hospital where silence is expected in some places and raucous interaction is reserved for others. Policy of what amount and volume of communication is needed and acceptable usually evolves over time and then is passed on to newcomers both by example and more explicitly. In your situation, apparently the decorum appropriate to your lab environs has not been communicated explicitly enough. So how might that be clearly and persuasively communicated to the new hires?

Your meeting of managers and supervisors can hammer out a set of do and don’t rules of communication and their supervisors can then counsel the new hires. And a time can be set to review with them their compliance or transgression of those rules. Or your lab as a whole or subgroups within it can be asked to develop a set of communication do and don’t rules with the goal of shaping a productive work environment. In short, this is a talk about talk approach focused on creating a pleasant and productive work environment, and it can be part of a general effort to learn if your lab might benefit from seeing itself as a team. From what you say, apparently your lab doesn’t have a history of that. Do any of these thoughts strike you as applicable to your lab? If not, I hope they prompt you to a constructive, creative, way to transform your annoyance to shaping a work environment that is even better than what is used to be. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. By that I mean that attention-getting behavior becomes less necessary when we find meaning in what can be accomplished together rather than in how we are viewed working solo.

William Gorden