‘How Do I Stop My Boss From Interrupting In Meetings?’

'I froze in the moment and I feel really bad about it.'

Boss interrupting in meetings

by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob |

In a world of in­spi­ra­tional memes and #girlboss In­sta­gram posts, it’s easy to for­get that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way for­ward at times. Sue Uner­man is the Chief Trans­for­ma­tion Of­fi­cer at Me­di­a­Com and Kathryn Ja­cob OBE is the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive at Pearl and Dean. To­gether they wrote The Glass Wall: Suc­cess Strate­gies For Women At Work And Busi­nesses That Mean Busi­ness. Their new book Belonging, The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality At Work is out on now. Each week an­swer your work ques­tions with prag­matic, hon­est ad­vice that’s proven to work…

Question: I was recently in a meeting where one of my colleagues was constantly interrupted by our boss.  He spoke over him, and I wanted to say something, but to be honest I froze in the moment and I feel really bad about it (sleepless nights etc).  What would you advise?

Sue: This is not uncommon, please don’t give yourself too a hard a time over your inaction.  It is really understandable that it is difficult to speak out when the person who is doing the interrupting is the same person who is responsible for your career prospects and is your boss.  The important thing is to work out how to deal with this when he interrupts again, which he surely will.  First of all, you do need to find out how your colleague was feeling about what happened.  It is important to allow him to feedback as to whether he felt marginalised.  It sounds as though he did, but you do need to ask him how he felt.  Then you need a strategy for dealing with this.  It could be that you follow up on the interruption, by re-stating what your colleague has said, and saying that you thought it was a good idea – and ask did anyone else agree?

Kathryn: Another tactic is to appear to be taking notes of the meeting and when your boss interrupts just say: “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said, can you say it again” to your colleague, thus creating an opportunity for him to be heard.  By doing this you create a space between one contribution and the interruption.  If your boss is at all mindful that you keep having to stop the flow he’ll soon leave more space for people to talk.  After all you are interrupting him back, but in a more polite way.   Does your boss do this often?  Or is it just with a specific individual?  It is worth while reflecting on this because some people just cannot help themselves and blurt out their contribution without thinking about it, or is this a pattern of behaviour with just a few people?

Sue: If it’s something your boss does all the time, Kathryn is absolutely right, it could be that he doesn’t understand the impact of his approach.  Perhaps he actually needs a polite and calm intervention.  If he’s interrupting through a passion for the topic, and actually means well, then this behaviour needs a different approach.  In this case you might assume that he just needs to understand the impact of his interruptions, and perhaps some coaching on how to listen properly.  If on the other hand he cannot stand challenge and is acting to shut off other points of view, then he is in a world of problems, because diverse opinions are totally necessary in business these days to drive growth.

Kathryn: If his behaviour is specifically happening with some individuals it could be that he needs to recognise the way that they work and how their contributions are meaningful.  I have come across examples where a quick talking boss becomes impatient with someone who they think is talking too slowly and with a lack of outcome.  Actually, the deliberate nature of the delivery came from a very analytical place and a particular approach that this boss really needed to help him not just follow his instincts when looking at a situation.  Every meeting needs different ways of thinking or you just get one outcome repeated again and again.  If it is individuals then is there a deeper problem – is he unhappy about their level of work and ability?

Sue: In our book Belonging, we include an exercise to ensure that everyone in the team knows each others preferred ways of working.  To get to a really high functioning team there might need to be a level of interruption so long as everyone is comfortable with this, and there might also need to be occasions when interrupting is banned until people have got their point across.  We spend a lot of time at work, and very little of it thinking about how we get the best out of each other because everyone is so worried about whether they are being heard and how they are coming across in the moment.  If you can suggest that the team takes time out to work on how you best work together, to establish roles in the team (maybe one of you is the analytical expert, one of you is the devil’s advocate, one of you is the peacekeeper) then this will pay dividends.

Meanwhile it is so important that you do reach out to your colleague and check in with him, we hate the idea that he’s miserable because of the constant interruptions.  You can be a great ally to him, and even an accomplice – a secret ally who helps him be his best self at work.

Good luck and let us know how it goes.

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