Top-Shelf Tip No. 216:

"The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life."

C.S. Lewis

Why Interruptions Aren't Always Bad

Interruptions at work take on many forms: emails, Slack messages, text alerts, a colleague popping into your office. These interruptions can negatively impact performance, causing lower productivity, poorer work quality and more errors. When you're stopped in the middle of something, you also might feel annoyed or anxious. Over time, you might start to feel that you don't have enough time to tackle everything you need to do.

However, Elana Feldman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management in the Manning School of Business, says that interruptions can spark positive rather than negative emotions-given the right circumstances.

In this issue of Promotional Consultant Today, we highlight Feldman's thoughts on why being interrupted at work can be a good thing.

Interruptions can increase positive feelings. Feldman asked 35 participants to keep track of their interruptions over the course of an entire workday. The participants spanned multiple industries and held varied titles. Participants recorded details such as what happened during each interruption, who interrupted them and how long each interruption lasted.

The day after they logged their interruptions, Feldman interviewed the participants. She wanted more information about each interruption to clarify and enrich her understanding of why it had sparked the emotions the participant had recorded.

Here's what she discovered: Roughly 30 percent of the interruptions were associated with feelings such as excitement and happiness. More than 75 percent of participants logged at least one positive interruption.

Time and timing matters. Study participants judged interruptions in terms of their "time worthiness." Interruptions seen as "time worthy" are more likely to spark positive emotions, says Feldman. Interruptions are "time worthy" if they involve tasks that are deemed high-priority, relevant to other ongoing projects and clearly within the scope of employees' jobs. That participants considered whether an interruption is worth their time makes sense given that people care most about making progress on work that is meaningful. Finally, Feldman found that shorter interruptions generally spark positive rather than negative emotions. Longer interruptions take up more of the time that people had mentally allocated to planned tasks.

Relationships and workload also matter. Individuals feel positive emotions if they like or respect the person who interrupted them, according to Feldman. In some cases, personal liking can spark a good experience even if an interruption is seen as "time wasting," poorly timed or overly long. Conversely, Feldman explains that if individuals dislike or lack respect for the person interrupting them, interruptions are more likely to generate negative feelings. This is particularly true if the interrupter has a history of intruding frequently about unimportant questions or tasks.

Interruptions are part of life, but they don't have to be negative. Consider how you can shift the culture at your organization. Train your employees to be mindful about how, when and why they interrupt others. Managers can also model healthy interruption behavior by reserving interruptions for vital tasks and commending team members who do the same.

Compiled by Audrey Sellers

Source: Elana Feldman, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of management in the Manning School of Business. Her research focuses on how the temporal and relational elements of organizations shape people's experiences, work and personal development.

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