Suppose you are sitting in your desk and your manager comes and start talking with your team leader about something related to work. Probably is not something that concerns you directly, but you want to know as much as possible about everything that happens related with work. You stop what you are doing and start listening to them without saying anything, just being curious. I see some pros and cons about this, Would you approve this behavior?


  • You stopped your work and your are losing time with something that is outside of your domain.
  • You are being rude.
  • You don't have concentration.


  • You are being curious and shows interest for your work.
  • You can come with an idea.
  • You are a good listener with everything that it implies.

Maybe there are other points that you can add in your answers, but I am more interested if this is well seen or not.

Btw, I am new in the company.

closed as not constructive by IDrinkandIKnowThings, acolyte, Deer Hunter, Rhys, CincinnatiProgrammer May 14 '13 at 12:17

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    @JoeStrazzere On the other hand, you could easily argue that having a discussion at someone's desk is an open invitation for anyone with relevant information to join in, and for anyone who wants to know about the topic under discussion to listen in. It largely depends on the office culture. – Tacroy May 13 '13 at 17:16
  • It is not constructive to ask us to judge the approriateness of such actions. It is possible that such actions are permissiable, or it could be a rude intrusion into a confidential business discussion. There is no one side fits all answer, and the judgement is not constructive – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 13 '13 at 17:37

In many professional organizations, the ideals of leadership are more valued than the ideals of traditional management. While managers want control, leaders get out of the way and empower others to innovate. The best ideas often come from cross-functional, self-organizing teams, where new ideas are embraced and encouraged. Sometimes this self-organization only lasts for a few brief moments, just long enough to help foster a new idea.

Do your job, but don't hesitate to help others

I'm a developer, but if I happen to overhear a conversation about how to sell one of our products, and it's something that interests me, I may jump into the conversation and provide some input. Oftentimes, myself and others have planted seeds that have helped solve problems.

Most of the time I'm not working on anything pressing. It's important work, and I set goals for myself in order to stay on track, but there always seems to be room to help others. If a server goes down -- the equivalent of a fire -- then anyone with technical skills focuses 100% on the issue. Outside of sensitive, mission-critical issues, we're pretty laid back.

The point is this: There shouldn't be any cons to getting involved or taking initiative to help out in other areas at your work, so long as you don't overpromise or take on work you don't have time for. If there are cons in getting involved, then you may want to take a moment to reflect and ask yourself if you're working in an environment that fosters innovation. If getting involved is looked down on, then your options are to either focus only on your work and be okay with that, or find a place where sharing ideas is encouraged. There's no right or wrong answer; it's up to you.

Observe your colleagues, then try an experiment

You can tell what kind of culture you're working in by observing others. Do you see colleagues getting involved in such discussions? Are those discussions productive? If they are, then that's a good sign that your input will be welcomed.

Even then, if no one else is taking initiative, try it yourself. Use the reaction of your manager and other colleague to determine whether or not this is encouraged. You'll really not know unless you try.

As for the pros, I'd like to think most professional organizations want self-starters in their ranks -- people who go out of their way to go the extra mile and solve creative problems. Thus, if you're one of these people, it may help increase your chances of advancing your career while also finding a workplace you enjoy! As one who works in such an environment, I assure you, it's quite rewarding. There are challenges, of course, but there are no cons.

Circling back to my first paragraph, management and leadership aren't the same things. As a new hire, you can show leadership by involving yourself in company issues and by taking initiative by offering new, fresh insight. Start your career off on a strong note and show your employer and colleagues what you have to offer! If they don't want you involved, they'll go to a private office. Many discussions are held in public precisely to foster more involvement; it's why the company I work for redesigned our offices so that we all work in a single, collaborative space.


I'd stick at least an ear on the conversation unless I was working on a high priority task that had to be fixed immediately,e.g. a production bug that is causing an outage and so the company is unable to process sales would be an example of high priority here.

My main points on each side:


  • I may be able to offer an insight on something being discussed.
  • I may learn more about what is to be worked on soon and can begin some research into that which could save time later.


  • I am delaying getting my own work done. If what I'm assigned is a high priority task to be done ASAP, then this could be a bad thing to stop working and listen on something else. While this is similar to your first con, there is something to be said for which is more important: Listen to this conversation or do my currently assigned work.

Some other ideas to consider:

Public Conversations are Public

Most managers will realize that a conversation said in public is... public! For the most part, assume that if the conversation is truly private, it will be said out of your hearing range. While they may not have an explicit goal of making news public, you can reasonably assume that anything discussed so publicly is OK to listen to.

Participation is generally fine...

... but make clear you are participating. In a cube environment, I've often seen this done by rolling one's chair out of one's cube and sticking one's head out. Or drifting over to the office with the open door. Or just rotating in one's chair so it's clear you're taking part or aware of the conversation. It's just body language, but it changes you from "listening in" to taking part in a conversation.


A quick 10 minutes here there or there - even about something only tangential to your work - is fine. If this conversation is something that happens multiple times a day, or for an hour or more - then limit your participation. You don't have to block your ears, but your primary job is doing your individual contributor assignment, not chatting for hours a day with management. Prioritize your time accordingly.

When conversations are long, I still see so problem to listening to "Management Radio" - basically tune in the way you'd tune into a news broadcast while continuing to focus on your work. Just don't let it be a major distraction. If it becomes something that changes your productivity radically, look into sound blocking options - different folks deal differently with this sort of distraction.

Test the waters

Piping up occasionally with a question or a comment should be fine - particularly when it is politely voiced ("Pardon me... I couldn't help hearing the idea that... I have a question/idea..."). But tune into the body language. You'll be able to see pretty quickly what the reaction is. Be aware that you're a new comer here, and you may be making suggestions that have been tried before, or speaking from a lack of knowledge - so it doesn't hurt to start with asking questions.

It's also good to try to judge whether the discussion is a quick check in, or a longer debate/brainstorming session. If the two managers/leaders seem hurried and terse, this is probably not the best time to chime in. If they've been at it for 10-15 minutes and don't seem to be in a hurry, it may be your best chance.

Some cases good and bad

I worked for years in a cube environment with the sort of semi-privacy that becomes a way of life. Some of the best and worst of my coworkers comes out in these sorts of conversations. Here's some examples:

  • Good case - the water cooler case - often it's referred to as chats around the water cooler. In my case, myself and my parellel lead for the other discipline were seated across from each other and would have open coversastions across the hallway. The whole team could hear us, but were welcome to ignore us. Whenever possible/necessary, we'd be having discussions about design and implementation, and anyone was welcome to chime in - the product was complicated enough that 75% of the time, 75% of the team would be impacted by any decision. We'd be sure to communicate final decisions in writing, but ad hoc discussions contributed greatly to gelling the vision.

  • Bad case - the whack a mole employee - I've had numerous cases of a "That Guy" who will chime in on every discussion management or senior engineering has. He'll stick up his head (not unlike a mole in an arcade game) or just happen to wander by. The first 1-3 times in a week, it's fine, we're glad to catch him up and hear his ideas, but when it's one guy, and one guy only, time after time - you start wondering if he doesn't have something better to do.

  • Bad case - the crowd gathers too much - in a healthy, vibrant team, a heated discussion about product vision can turn into an all hands chat session. That can be wondeful if happens once a month. It can be a real drag if it happens every time two managers/leads are in each other's vicinity. There has to be a healthy balance between ad hoc group chats and getting other things done.

  • Bad case - one man left behind? - a real tricky case - one guy on the team hates disruptions and wears noise canceling headphones. Most others listen in or chime in because it's an informal team. Then you have one guy constantly in the dark who's really ticked off that it feels like everyone is making decisions and getting to give input except him.

It all comes down to - how much does the conversation happen, and what does it do to productivity when someone participates.

  • Be especially aware of a situation I've found myself in where the one man left behind is potentially remote and doesn't even know the conversations are happening. – Michael May 13 '13 at 16:46
  • Oh yes! If you're going to have remote folks, own up to "chatting" in a remote-compatible format! But then that's a whole other fun area... and one we haven't done much with on the Workplace come to think of it... – bethlakshmi May 13 '13 at 20:03

All the pro/con points you mention are just interpretations so you can't predict what people will think. I would ask politely 'Mind if I listen in on this' or 'Mind if I prick up my ears while you're talking'? You could keep working or not depending on how involved you need to be in the conversation and your task-at-hand.

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    If they are talking about something and your'e in earshot, I don't really see the point in asking if it's okay to listen. I would find it particularly awkward if someone asked 'Mind if I prick up my ears while you're talking'? – user9085 May 13 '13 at 16:28

You're going to be naturally curious early in a job. but not all situations are the same, so you need to go through a process of evaluating this for yourself.

  1. Make sure you get your work done. Early on in a job, you may not have a lot of deadlines, but things will pick up quick.
  2. Does this information eventually get shared with others? You could be wasting your time.
  3. Do the other people welcome you into the converesation or do they seem bothered and feel like you are intruding?

Eventually, you'll learn how things work at a particular company and can determine if there's anything to be gained.

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