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Not sure if I'm off-base here. My colleague has a habit of asking people questions just as they are getting out of their seat. I feel like I've noticed at least one another person express impatience at this, and wonder if it's something that would be felt as off-putting by most (American) workers in an office environment.

To give more context, I work in a small dev team of 2 to 4, as the unofficial lead. The developer in question is very kind and considerate, soft-spoken and a bit shy. I can understand he may not be totally comfortable interrupting others when they seem focused on their screen. He tends to say, "Quick question" (though very politely), but proceeds to explain a situation to that often requires one to look over his shoulder, sometimes navigate him on Vim, even sit down for a bit. Frequently I did say things like, "Hang on, let me run to the kitchen first," hoping eventually he'd find other times to ask.

Is this something worth having a chat with him about, i.e. Would you say most would consider this behavior potentially rude or off-putting? Or is it more of a personal "pet peeve" that would make me appear overly sensitive or controlling to bring up.

On one hand, if it's not just me, then I'd like to guide him to use a different approach without hurting his feelings. On the other hand, if it's just me, then I wonder what I can do to change my own perception or become more receptive to his preference.

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    Have you tried saying something like, "Sure, I can answer your question when I get back."? – Chris G Feb 22 '17 at 18:17
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    Just encourage him to ask questions anytime, not just when you are about to leave. – JarkkoL Feb 22 '17 at 18:23
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    I have a colleague that does mostly the same thing. She'll stop people when they pass by her office. It is very annoying, not just to me but to other people in my office. I've told her it's annoying, but she still does it. I understand the convenience, and I've done it before too, but I don't think it's very respectful of other people's time. – Chris Feb 22 '17 at 18:25
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    @rafaelbonametti - I added "America" to avoid the obligatory, "What country?" question. I think it's specific enough. – Andrew Cheong Feb 22 '17 at 19:26
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    To me it sounds like he doesn't want to interrupt you. So he waits until he knows you aren't busy. It just happens to be when you get up. To him you are getting up so you are clearly not doing anything that he can disturb you from. – Snowlockk Feb 23 '17 at 15:08
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As the lead of the team, it is part of your job to help your team mates from a technical perspective when they need guidance. ( as you well know )

Based on what I have read and perhaps implied from your question, I think what your experiencing is that your team isn't sure the best way to ask you for help, as they are trying to also minimizing the impact of you getting your tasks done.

I would suggest, if you haven't tried this already, to send an email to your team explaining what your preferred mechanism of communication is in regards to requests for assistance. This way the team knows your preference, and hopefully will respect your wishes.

I do not think this suggestion will cure all of your ailments, I do however think it will help.

To specifically answer your question, its only partially in your head. ;-)

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    This really helped me. I'll try to find some way to let everyone know via email or at the next team meeting. Brainstorming here, but something like, "By the way guys, if I ever seem really focused, or even when I have headphones in [many of us do at end of day], don't hesitate to ask me things. If you're afraid I'm particularly busy, send me an IM asking me if I have a minute, and I'll get back to you when convenient for me. It's as much my job to help you as it is to code or help others. If it seems like I'm too busy for your questions, then something's wrong: I need to reprioritize." – Andrew Cheong Feb 22 '17 at 19:34
  • @AndrewCheong Glad I could help. – Mister Positive Feb 22 '17 at 19:36
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    BTW, thanks for the cleanup on the question, however I intended those characters so I rolled back :) They mean "Too long; didn't read," a.k.a. summarizing a long post in a sentence (and also showing that the author is aware / apologetic of the length). I've seen it a few times on SE but possibly it can't be said to be "common." – Andrew Cheong Feb 22 '17 at 19:45
  • @AndrewCheong Learn something new every day. – Mister Positive Feb 22 '17 at 19:46
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    Consider changing "send email" to "bring up in a team discussion". Sending email looks more like you setting a rule; having a conversation (at the end of which you say what you want to have happen) allows the team to feel part of it. One of them might say something that affects what you end up doing. – Monica Cellio Feb 23 '17 at 16:10
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This guy goes to much trouble to not to break your flow. Probably, as he stumbles on something, he fights the impulse to ask you immediately. Then he formulates the question quietly. Then he silently proceeds to other activities, while constantly monitoring if you still seem busy at your desk. He also knows that e-mail/IM is not a very effective tool to explain things.

Putting away the nonconstructive question if the behavior can be judged as rude, I think it would be reasonable to agree with him (as well as other teammates) on a visual flag. This would give you a very non-intrusive way of arranging your discussions.

  • Whoever wants a discussion, raises a flag. I mean either literally a small flag or some substitute, like their tea cup placed on your desk for example.
  • Once you are no longer busy with your computer you notice the flag and talk with them. Agree that you are not under obligation to react quickly or even on the same day. (It's important for both sides. He will not use this mechanism if he sees it interrupts you abruptly every time; and abrupt context switches are also bad for you.)
  • They can raise the flag again after 2 hours or more; tune this timeout for the best overall productivity.
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    +1 for multiple reasons. He is going through effort to not interrupt you looking at your screen, and is intervening when he realizes you're about to become very unavailable to him. Create a culture of being available even when you're looking at the screen. (Allow yourself to get interrupted, and be friendly about it.) The other thing I like is the practical ideas with the visual flag; I've heard of this being done at a Cingular call center. – TOOGAM Mar 13 '17 at 2:10
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I'm guessing that the guy is just trying to be considerate, in a mis-guided way. As others have said, he thinks that when you get up, you are no longer focused on anything, so this is a good time for a question. Conversely, when you're sitting working, he doesn't want to bother you.

What he's missing is the fact that when you get up, it's because you need to go (perhaps urgently) somewhere else, even if it's only to the bathroom.

So, if you really do need to go somewhere else, you need to tell him this. It seems like you have difficulty cutting off his questions. That's a useful skill to develop. Here are a few ideas:

  1. If you really need to go to the bathroom, grimace, cross your legs, and dance around a little. This should cause a pause in which you can say "gotta go".

  2. Cut him off early. Most people start out with something like "can I ask you a quick question?". That's a good time to say "no" (nicely).

  3. If he's already gotten started, and it looks like it's going to take too long, use the "time out" signal (make a "T" with your hands).

  4. Point at your watch and then point out the door, towards the meeting you need to go to.

  5. If you're going to a meeting, make a big production of gathering up all the things you need: pen, paper, laptop, phone. Even if you're just going out to lunch, you need car keys, phone, jacket, etc. This will make it clear that you're not just standing up, you're actually intending to go somewhere.

All the theatrics outlined above is a bit silly, really, and it might be better to just have a frank talk with the guy. Tell him that you've noticed he often asks you a question as you stand up. Tell him it's usually a bad time. The reason you stand up is because you need to go somewhere, which means you don't have time to properly answer his important question.

To answer your question ... it is not considered rude (as far as I know) to ask people questions as they stand up. This applies to all the countries I have lived in, including UK, US, Japan, China. But it's also not rude to say "good question, but now is not a good time, so let's discuss this when I get back".

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He may mistakenly think it is a good time to ask as you are not in the middle of something if you are getting up.

Just say "I am heading out right now and I will get back with you when I return".

  • Thanks, but as I said, that's what I do now. – Andrew Cheong Feb 22 '17 at 19:24
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    That is not what you said. You sometimes listen and the excuse yourself. You get upset. Just say "I am heading out right now and I will get back with you when I return". – paparazzo Feb 22 '17 at 19:26
  • Fair enough, about getting upset, but I don't make that visible (hopefully). There's really no chance for me to say exactly what you're saying. He goes off with his question immediately—Am I to just cut him off and say your words verbatim? Of course not, so I wait until he's explained a segment, and say, "Let me look into this more later." I'm not sure how this is that much different than what you're suggesting... – Andrew Cheong Feb 22 '17 at 19:37
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    @andrewcheong Actually, yes you should cut them off. Say something like, "Sorry, I'm on my way to the restroom/a meeting/lunch/whatever, catch me when I get back, and I'll take a look at the problem." – Herb Wolfe Feb 22 '17 at 20:14
  • This is all exactly correct. yes, cut them off and simply say the words "Hold that thought, I'll be back in {insert value] minutes." Yes, interrupt them / cut them off. – Fattie Apr 4 at 22:33
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At the risk of repeating some points that have already been made, my guess is also that he's trying to do you a favor. Simply ask him why he does that. The answer may be delightful to you! And afterwards, a simple smile will do the trick as you say "I'll be back in a minute..."

What is missing in these answers is, as lead, you are responsible for the productivity of your team. If they are asking questions, it's usually because the tasks are above their level and things are not over-specified. This is generally good, it means that they must push their own performance to succeed, and that can be much more rewarding than cash compensation in the end.

If they are asking "too many" questions (a very subjective thing), it's probably because there's not enough organization, which starts with you. I've been on teams where people were fearful to ask questions of the lead for various reasons. As a contractor, about 50% of the teams I embed with could be more productive overall if the lead were more accessible (even as that accessibility came at a cost to the lead's own output). At times, I have done things the lead should have been doing, but that's okay, because again, the client can see the results with improved velocity. It's a very good discussion point with a personal leadership coach that the company should be glad to provide to you. Good luck!

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