We've all been there—one accidental email, and suddenly your entire organization is filling your inbox with angry replies. Gaffes at work happen to everyone, but you can learn how to navigate the politics of your workplace to keep your cool and avoid drama.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
Yes, that accidental email is what happened to me. Within eight minutes of sending my email I had received eleven replies, including responses from two vice presidents, three directors and my boss, plus two phone calls to my desk and one high importance flag.
My innocent email with the subject, "Quick question about training," went viral in the worst way possible. I was on the job for less than four weeks and I had already created a huge fiasco about what I thought was an innocuous topic. Little did I know that it was a controversial topic within the organization that sparked a fury of discussion.
Luckily my boss stepped in and simply said, "Robbie did not intend to send this email," which were the magic words needed to end the drama I had started and assuage the higher-ups.
Here's what I've learned about navigating office politics from my own experiences.
Know Which of Your Coworkers Are Most Likely to Cause Drama
Here are the questions I ask to determine which of my colleagues might be likely to stir the pot:
- Are there certain people that I should think twice about before emailing?
- Are there certain people that I should always call or talk to in person instead of emailing?
When you're second guessing yourself before communicating with someone, you probably have reservations based on their past reactions. They aren't necessarily malicious or have anything against you, but they might not deal with certain situations in a way that will help you. And when you do need to communicate with such people, you may need to tailor your messages to the expectation of how they might react.
Don't Pretend to Be Above Office Politics
There's no avoiding it—you work with a variety of people and you won't always get along with everyone. Telling yourself, "I don't engage in office politics, I tell it like it is," is a flawed tactic that might just cause more trouble.
We all commit accidental gaffes—stupid mistakes in conversation like asking a woman about her pregnancy when she's not actually pregnant, or more forgettable errors like calling people by the wrong name.
And when you stick your foot in your mouth, all you can do is apologize and explain it was a genuine mistake. But it's foolish to think that you can simply not be involved with the social politics of an office at all—it's part of work and life.
You Need to Engage People and Ask Questions
Engaging in office politics doesn't mean you have to play games to win. Rather, it means that you have to be very aware of your surroundings, your coworkers, and sometimes the structure of the organization.
Here are questions I always ask my contacts in any new environment.
- Are there sensitive topics that I shouldn't discuss without talking to you first?
- Can you draw an organizational chart for me?
- Who should my main point of contact be for this project?
- Is there a certain process I should follow for this task? Is it okay if I talk to this person first?
- With whom should I be engaging?
With a clear understanding of how they work and are their organizational hierarchy, you're less likely to do something that will cause unnecessary drama or miscommunication.
But Sometimes It's Best to Be Quiet and Listen
If I'd never sent that email I wouldn't have created a fiasco.
Instead, I should have just shut my mouth and asked my manager directly. If you are new to an office environment you should be listening 95% of the time. If you have a question and are in a large group, write the question down and ask after the meeting is over. It's particularly important when you're new to your job that you ask a lot of questions to get a good understanding of how things work.
The thing with office politics is that you don't know what the trigger words are.
Know Which Topics Are Sensitive
Every office has trigger words that get everyone up in a frenzy once someone blurts them out.
In my case the word "training" was a trigger because there was a controversial organizational change going on and "training" meant that we were training resources to replace other resources. I didn't know that but it was why my email got out of control. There was a process for training and my email implied that I wanted to follow a different process.
That was not my intention. I had simply touched on a sensitive nerve that was already a controversial topic, so I learned that I had be careful when discussing my training.
Avoid "Reply to All" Like It's the Plague
There is a 99% chance you didn't need to reply to all, and also a good chance that what you said in your email shouldn't have been seen be other people in the first place.
Here is the rule of thumb. Unless 100% of the recipients will find your information useful, only reply directly to the sender.
"Reply all" is too often the cause of office drama. Always—always!—be sure to check if you've accidentally clicked "reply all" before sending a sensitive message.
Never Start Drama on a Friday
Let's just say you ignore all my advice and you want to start drama.
- Best time to start drama (if there is a "best" time): Monday afternoon.
- Worst time to start drama: Friday afternoon.
The reason is that drama on Friday can run over into the weekend and then start again on Monday. It can ruin your weekend because all you can think about is the politics in the office, and perhaps answering emails when you should be trying to relax.
Do us all a favor. If you're going to cause problems, cause it on a Monday so it doesn't ruin everyone's weekend. Of course, you should never intentionally instigate "drama," but heated disagreements happen when your coworkers feel strongly about something.
If you find yourself in a heated battle trying to prove that you were right and someone else was wrong, you've already lost the battle. Rather, you should try and find a way to collaborate and find middle ground to deal with the issue at hand.
Robbie Abed is the author of the author of the book Fire Me I Beg You and an experienced independent IT Consultant. Sign up for the free Summer of Quitting email course to learn how to advance your career by leaving your day job.