Don’t press the wrong buttons at your workplace


A few weeks ago, I was part of an interesting conversation themed around my new book, Office Secrets. Joining me for this discussion from his home in Sweden was best-selling author Thomas Erikson, whose book Surrounded By Idiots, has sold over three million copies already. We spoke about both our books, and it was great fun.

We did this conversation on the X Spaces (formerly Twitter Spaces) platform, as suggested by our common publisher. For both of us, it was our first time ever using this digital platform, and we underwent heavy duty pre-session training on the subject.

Notwithstanding the training, within a few minutes of the start of the conversation, I pressed a wrong button on the X Spaces screen and the conversation came crashing down abruptly. I saw a message which said: “Your conversation has ended.” The entire audience was left hanging, while I was left red-faced.

Some quick thinking by a young colleague, who is a digital geek par excellence, rescued me from this self-inflicted mess, and we were able to put the conversation back on the road again quickly.

I heard a similar story from one of the members of the audience, who said that he had pressed a wrong button on X Spaces while wanting to ask Thomas and me a question. And he too had been immediately thrown out of the event.

Now, wrong buttons on X Spaces is not Elon Musk’s fault, much as we may wish to blame him for many of the ills of our world. Pressing the wrong button was entirely my error. And as I have reflected on this episode, it occurs to me that X Spaces is not the only place where we press wrong buttons. We do this in our workplaces too—all the time.

Boss in a bad mood

For instance, taking an important proposal to your boss when he or she is in a bad mood or preoccupied with another messy situation is the quickest way to press the wrong button. However strongly structured or well argued your proposal is, you may not get the required patient hearing. At the very best, you may get a cold stare from your boss and be told to come back again. The more likely scenario is that your project may get quickly read and put into cold storage, with the feedback that there are many other important organizational priorities at this point in time.

In the worst case, your boss may channel all their existing bad mood-driven frustrations at to your proposal, in which case, beware of this wrong button. It may end up being a totally calamitous one for you. One good way to avoid this button is to find informal channels through which you can discreetly assess your boss’s mood before walking into their office.

Talking without preparation

Yet another wrong button that we press often is when we speak up in meetings for which we have not done any preparation.

We sometimes like to speak because we want visibility and recognition. Unfortunately, with all the interesting distractions around us, we have not been able to review the material for the meeting. Yet we speak. And then, when we are asked pointed questions probing what we have just spoken about, our ignorance and lack of preparation quickly becomes obvious.

Pressing this wrong button can lead to loss of credibility with colleagues and superiors, because they will tend to perceive us as shallow and lacking in seriousness.

Therefore, it is a good idea to either prepare well and speak, or keep our mouth largely shut during a meeting.

Hunger pangs

A very wrong button is making a long presentation at a meeting just before lunch time or late in the evening. Long presentations are passe in any case, regardless of the timing of the meeting, because most people today appreciate a crisp submission that quickly focuses on the issues at hand. But when these presentations are made at a time when everyone is hungry or just waiting to go home, they meet a wall of indifference and impatience.

A fundamental workplace truth is that no normal corporate executive can pay attention to a new framework or a strategic insight when all that he or she is thinking of is some combination of soup, salad and pasta. Some bright people may even be thinking of dessert.

Of course, a long presentation after lunch may be an equally wrong button to press, because it has the potential to send people into a pleasant state of relaxed sleep.

Either way, the broader message is, keep your presentations short and focused on the essentials.

Lack of sensitivity

Then there are the wrong buttons of insensitivity towards colleagues. Sometimes, we may try to score a brownie point at a meeting by trying to quickly put down a colleague’s idea, or saying something that appears clever on the spur of the moment but ends up hurting the sentiments of one or more people around the table.

Such efforts of one-upmanship may win a few smiles at the meeting, but over the long term, they can lead to loss of trust and may even breed resentment within that colleague.

Learning to be sensitive to people around you is an invaluable skill.

Friday evening blues

Yet another wrong button is emailing a huge project report or some such document to your manager or peer late evening on a Friday, just as they are about to unwind for the weekend.

Unless this report is really urgent, it immediately gets buried in a big weekend pile of emails and may never get the attention that it deserves. While you may have sent out this message and report with good intent, that is, to bring your own task to completion before the week has ended, it may nonetheless end up being a futile effort.

So, assess the urgency carefully, before you send out your Friday evening email.

These are just a few illustrations of the hundreds of wrong buttons that we may be tempted to press in our offices. They are all around us, and the earlier we identify them, the more success we are likely to achieve in our roles.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He is terrified of pressing the wrong button on his mobile phone and sending the right WhatsApp message to the wrong person.



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