Workplace Doctor: what to do about a colleague’s annoying ringtone
I work in an open-concept office. One of my colleagues has the world’s loudest and most annoying ringtones on his mobile. It’s not even a song but rather sounds like a bunch of notes that the mobile company thought were “jaunty”. My colleague laughs off anyone’s requests that he silence or lower this ringtone. He seems to think it’s cute. What should I do other than, obviously, throw the mobile into shark-infested waters? RA, Abu Dhabi
Dear RA, please do remember to let go of the phone when you throw it into shark-infested waters or else you’ll have an even larger situation to deal with.
Your colleague is an external force that you have little or no control over. However, you can make choices for yourself, can’t you? Here’s a few I would take if I was in your situation:
Choice 1: Any attention, irrespective of its form, will have the effect of a reinforcement. Laughing, crying, screaming, matching his ring with an equally horrific one on your phone or reacting in any other way is an action which will allow the offender to feel noticed. So if there is any possible way you can ignore this ringtone, do so. On a positive note, let’s face it, technology changes so fast that he’ll probably change it to another more fashionable ring within a few days.
Choice 2: Once it gets to the stage of grating on your nerves, try to influence him to change his behaviour. However first of all, prepare yourself with an informal risk analysis:
a. List reasons why you feel he should put his phone on silent
b. Determine the effect of the annoyance on others.
c. Identify the gap between your perceptions and that of others.
d. Understand the consequences of addressing or not addressing this issue. For example, if you are the only person who is challenged by this chap’s behaviour, could the real issue be within you, and therefore bring consequences for you? This is not to say you don’t deserve to voice your opinion, but more so it could act as a self-check to look at situations not only through your own lens but also that of others.
e. List reasons for him having the ringtone other than “cute” – perhaps he needs attention at the moment. This will give you an indication of how much resistance you are likely to face and to manage.
f. Revisit your values – identify the level of alignment between your values and his. For example, what’s the use of speaking of respect to a person who doesn’t value it at all? Why start any action if the odds are stacked against you? This small audit may help you see if your chosen method of addressing this would help or hinder the situation.
Choice 3a: You have two options when the odds are not against you:
a. Request a face-to-face discussion, ask the right questions and after all of that provide feedback that shows how his actions are bothering you, or
b. Employ the “non-violent communication” technique that focuses on yourself, dispelling any possibility for argument. This is achieved by referring only to yourself. It may sound something like: “When I hear the loud shrill of the ringtone, I feel like jumping the walls or running to the hills as it raises the hair on my neck. As a result, to help me work here, I would request the tone is changed to one with more soothing qualities”.
Choice 3b. If indeed the odds are stacked against you, hand this duty to someone who is paid more than you – that extra salary your manager earns is to handle tricky ones like this.
Plan. Do. Review. It’s a great way to tackle human behaviour.
Debbie Nicol, the managing director of the Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Workplace Doctor’s advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague