Distractions in the workplace are inevitable. A colleague wants help, or there is a staff morning tea to attend. Some distractions are welcome and help to break up the day. Others cause conflict and actually stop work being completed on time. A reasonable level of distraction can be tolerated. The real problems occur when your team is so easily distracted that it becomes a constant battle to keep them on task.
Why team members become easily distracted
There are a number of reasons why team members may be easily distracted, tending to let others interrupt their work. Allowing distractions also reinforces the behaviour. If you let your team constantly deal with interruptions, then it will become a habit. Real problems occur when constant interruptions become a normal part of the day.
Team members are easily distracted because they like the distraction better than real work
When team members are easily distracted, it may be that they love the variety that these distractions bring. Instead of working hard to finish a substantial piece of work, they may love helping Beryl from accounts with a reporting issue she has, because it only takes an hour.
This can be a sign that your team members need more variety in their work. It could also be that they are bored of their role and look for ways to avoid the normal workload. Some employees are better suited to be in “utility” roles that focus on helping others.
Team members are easily distracted because they enjoy helping people
Most people feel great when they help other people. It feels good to be helpful, right? It’s much more enjoyable than focusing on long projects. There is such a thing as being too helpful, however.
When team members are overly helpful, they reinforce an ongoing theme – that they will always be there to offer assistance. Once this precedent has been set, it will often continue. Your team member becomes the helpful “go-to” person who will always offer assistance. The people who are being helped are not going to stop asking. Why would they?
In some organisations, helpful people are lauded as great employees. This may even be the case when they aren’t really performing their day job very well. This is a trap. Organisations and teams that reward helpfulness above performing their role well are creating a situation ripe for poor productivity.
Team members are easily distracted because there are no consequences
When team members are easily distracted, often it’s because there are no consequences in place to prevent it. If there is no penalty for failing to get your work done due to distractions, why would you change?
Positive and negative consequences need to be in place to entice people to change their behaviour. Without consequences, there is no reason to change. When team members realise that failing to perform their core role due to distractions actually hurts them, this may be an unpleasant surprise.
Team members are easily distracted because they find it hard to push back
Some team members like to avoid confrontation. This can be due to personality, cultural background or other reasons. When you tell somebody “No, I can’t help you, I’m busy”, that’s a form of confrontation.
Some people in the workplace are pushy and have a tendency to steam roll others into helping them. This causes distractions, as the team member feels as if they are unable to refuse the request. Learning to say no is a key aspect of avoiding constant distractions.
How to reduce distractions in your team
1: Introduce formal processes to handle distracting requests
If you notice that your team is being distracted by the same things day in day out, it is time to introduce a process to handle it, or reinforce an existing process. If you notice that people in your organisation are going directly to a certain helpful team member all the time, you may introduce a process where that request is sent to a support queue instead. Or introduce a gatekeeper.
“Instead of going straight to Kate, please let me know if you need assistance.”
The gatekeeper can be effective because it provides a barrier which is inconvenient. Instead of going to Kate, they’ll have to have an annoying discussion with you. You know what? Maybe they’ll just get it done themselves.
These techniques gradually retrain people to use correct process rather than to distract somebody constantly. It also makes it slightly more arduous to log a request.
Before, they could just go and ask Bob, now they have to write a request to the support team. You may find that these distractions disappear entirely because of the extra effort taken to raise them.
2: Introduce consequences for being easily distracted
Sometimes your team members need to be retrained. If people in your team have the mentality that being helpful is more important than completing their normal work, the normal work will take a back seat.
Part of the retraining is to introduce consequences for being easily distracted. This could be part of normal performance reviews, or by providing direct feedback that this isn’t acceptable. Positive rewards can also be given to those who push back unnecessary distractions.
You can also try to introduce consequences for people who are a constant source of distractions. Without consequences, a workplace runs in a chaotic fashion and the rules are often bent.
Sometimes, team leaders tend to only go halfway. For example, they will get the team to log all of their distractions. This is nice, but without taking action to prevent the distractions, this is pointless administrative work.
3: Communicate to reinforce the rules
It’s important to consistently reinforce any rules you create to ward off distractions. If you have created a new process to handle distracting requests, then you need to continuously call it. When someone goes around the correct process, you need to call it out and tell them to do it properly.
Rules to prevent distraction are pointless if they aren’t enforced. The best way to reinforce the rules is to create a coalition that sings the same tune. They point out distracting behaviour, tell people the correct way to do things, and push back on potential distractions.
Without this joint effort, you’ll struggle to create a behavioural change. People will continue to be easily distracted and work will be done poorly.
Easily distracted team members become poor performers if the issue isn’t addressed. They become less dependable, because you can never rely on them to meet a deadline.
In some organisations, people believe they are being “helpful” by giving into distractions, even though it affects their normal work. To stop it, you need to introduce consequences, create alternative methods for handling distractions and reinforce the rules with the team.
Without this, your team is destined to be unfocused, unproductive and unreliable.
Have you experienced an environment where people were easily distracted? What did you do and what was the outcome? I’d love to read your comments.