I would speculate that virtually every single person reading this post has uttered those words, or something very close, upon walking into your boss’s or some other senior manager’s office. I’m also confident that if you are in a senior leadership role, that you hear something similar from subordinates almost every day. It’s time for all of us to stop saying those words
I realize that in most cases we are simply trying to be polite or deferential, but the fact is when you say, “I’m sorry to bother you,” you are suggesting that whatever your reason for wanting to speak to the person is, it is, by definition, less important than what he or she is already doing. When you say, “I know you are busy,” you are saying that the other things the person does all day that make him or her busy are justified, but your reason for contributing to the person’s busyness is not equally justified.
This silly need to be deferential or polite is an historical legacy of hierarchical organizations in which the boss’s time and ideas and decisions were always considered to be more important and smarter than anyone else’s. Regardless of how one feels about the hierarchy itself, the reality is that the complexity and volatility of day to day operations in virtually any contemporary organization, in any industry or field, is such that bosses no longer bring value (if they ever did) by controlling agendas and time and decisions. They bring value today by empowering many other people in the organization to do better work—ideally, collaboratively, in teams.
So, when someone walks into a superior’s workspace or calls on the phone, with or without a formal appointment, it is because that person has determined that he or she needs something (an opinion, a resource, an approval, etc.) that he or she will use to do his or her job. That interaction should not begin with, “I’m sorry to bother you. I know you are busy.” This may sound like a small thing, but it is actually a big thing. It is a mistake for anyone to start a conversation with words that immediately devalue the importance of their reason for being there in the first place!
For those of you who are senior managers and leaders, it is important to overtly redirect people when they say those self-deprecating words to you. I find myself doing this every day, but I feel strongly about it, so I do it. When anyone comes into my office to speak with me and they start the dialogue with, “I’m sorry to bother you. I know you’re busy,” I immediately reply with, “You aren’t bothering me. I want to hear what you have to say. And, yes, I’m busy, but I’m busy doing important things like meeting with you.” It is often a joy to see the look (surprise?) on the face of a colleague or customer when I do that!
For what it’s worth, I also do not apologize to my board members when I “take their time.” I never want them to think that the time they’re going to spend with me is any less important than anything else they could be doing!