A few years ago a seemingly innocuous moment, for a short time, became a pivotal moment. During a panel discussion at the World Science Festival, held in New York, theoretical physicist Professor Veronika Hubeny was sitting on stage, with three men to her left and three her right. The host posed a question to her, Hubeny attempted to respond – but was unsuccessful. Instead the host interrupted her continuously to speak over her, explaining her own theories back to her until an exasperated voice shouted, quite suddenly, from somewhere behind the camera. “Let. Her. Speak. Please!” For a second, the panel was quiet.
Inevitably, the video went viral. Perhaps because it was a clear example of the insidious behaviour we all experience, especially in the workplace. Being interrupted can feel undermining and frustrating; the act can disempower us in an instant and even hold us back as we progress in our careers. It’s a power struggle that occurs more frequently than we like to admit. It’s not just the guy who won’t let you get a word in edgeways, but also that one colleague who constantly pops up on Slack to eat into your time.
Interruptions are big business. In fact, one much-cited University of California, Irvine (UCI) study claims the average worker switches task every three minutes throughout their day and takes around 23 minutes to focus again. This can cost us up to six hours per day – or 28 billion wasted hours per year, collectively.
“I’m 18 years into my career,” says brand innovation manager Nina Singh*, 38, “and it’s something I deal with constantly. Not only does it eat into your time, but being repeatedly interrupted by someone else is annoying and belittling. I’ve noticed it’s a trait in certain characters. I’ve tried many methods to try and combat it – or contain it – over the years.”