When I was in graduate school, I managed the university’s gym. In this role, I had one employee who was always looking at his phone while monitoring the weight room—something that can prove dangerous when you’re supposed to make sure no one drops a barbell on his or her head.
Each time, I’d say something along the lines of, “Hey Sam. I know working in this room can be boring, but please get off your phone or I’ll have to take it.” But this never really worked—I would find him staring at it again less than an hour later. As you can imagine, I grew increasingly frustrated that he wouldn’t listen to me.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Lipson, instead of having the same conversation with Sam over and over again (and wanting to bang my head against the wall), I should’ve changed up my strategy. He says, “As soon as you notice that you are in a familiar and noxious work setting, where the other party is likely to do the same thing as usual and you are likely to play the part you usually play, then it is time to do something different.”
And no, the different thing isn’t to raise your voice louder and louder. Instead, it’s to do a little improv. Turns out that thinking on your feet can help to finally “unbreak” the broken record. Lipson states: “When you stop playing your familiar role, you implicitly invite them to stop playing theirs.”
Before you get stressed that you’re not an improv star, know that it’s less about auditioning for Saturday Night Live and more about mixing up your reaction to the person’s behavior. So, the next time you find yourself facing your own Sam, don’t try to plan a big speech ahead—instead just do what feels natural in that moment. Crack a joke? Sure. Laugh out loud? Go right ahead. “The remarkable thing is that the content of what we do instead almost doesn’t matter, writes Lipson. “…When you stop playing your familiar role, you implicitly invite them to stop playing theirs.”
If all goes according to plan, your own Sam will be so surprised by your change in behavior that he’ll have no choice but to change his own.
TopicsManagement , Communication , Bad Habits , Conflict Resolution , Management Style , Annoying Co-Workers , Syndication
Abby works in health education and prevention at a university in Washington, DC. When she’s not trying to make the world a healthier place, you can find her taking selfies with her cat (Mildred Meow Meow), hunting down the city's best grilled cheese, or zipping through the city on her bike, named Libby. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author