Why workplace drama harms your company (and how to shut it down)
Drama in the workplace just happens sometimes. But the best leaders learn to stop it in its tracks. Quint Studer shares advice for keeping the peace at work
From time to time, most of us have experienced or even contributed to workplace drama. It can take many different forms: People gossip, spread rumors, complain, lash out emotionally, rant about a perceived wrong, purposely exclude others, take sides in conflicts, and so forth. No matter how drama manifests, it can be a highly destructive force inside a company.
“Drama contributes to a less professional workplace,” says Quint Studer, author of Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive (Wiley, October 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-57664-8, $28.00). “It creates bad feelings and lowers morale. It keeps people from being able to work together effectively. It tears teams apart. It hurts productivity. Ultimately, it creates the kind of culture that drives away high performers and keeps you from attracting great talent.”
Studer says that those who create workplace drama aren’t always doing it intentionally. It can be driven by insecurity, fear, or other undealt-with emotional issues. But most often, he says, it stems from people not knowing how to handle conflict or have tough conversations.
“Whatever the reasons, great leaders take a zero-tolerance stance against drama,” says Studer. “Their behavior and their words let employees know they value a drama-free environment where people cultivate healthy, respectful, collaborative adult relationships.”
Here are a few tips for shutting down drama in your organization:
Model the behavior you want to see. Don’t participate in drama yourself. Don’t gossip or badmouth anyone. Strive to always be aboveboard, fair, respectful, and positive. Be really careful about even small things: for example, copying someone you don’t need to copy on a sensitive email. Never stop examining your own motives and hold yourself to the highest standard. The leader always sets the tone for workplace behavior. If it’s okay for you to do it, employees assume it’s okay for them. Be aware of the messages you’re sending.
Have a system for managing conflict. “Train employees on how situations should be resolved and give them specific steps for getting there,” says Studer. “In many cases, they may not realize how harmful their actions are. With just a little training and expectation-setting, you can eliminate many of the problems.”
Be as transparent as possible. Drama thrives in secretive environments. This is one of many reasons why it’s a good idea for organizations to be open about everything from financials to performance metrics to changes that might be coming in the future. The less people have to speculate about, the less likely they’ll be to gossip and repeat hearsay. Leaders need to be transparent, too. The less you have to hide the less you’ll have to worry about who you told and whether they will repeat it.
Ask for specificity. “When people make blanket statements like ‘everybody says’ and ‘everybody thinks,’ ask them for names and particulars,” says Studer. “Who is everybody? I have found in my work with communities that when people start using generalities like this to build a case for their position (usually a negative one), they can typically name only one or two people. They are creating a lot of emotion without a lot of substance behind it. Forcing specificity helps us put issues in perspective and shuts down drama.”
Stop repeating the story. Encourage employees to keep the story in the group that needs to hear it. When something happens that gets people upset, they may feel the need to tell their story over and over. Usually this is because they want support or attention. As leaders we need to be careful not to do this ourselves and we need to let employees know how destructive this can be. When we repeat stories over and over, they become larger than life and perpetuate negativity throughout the organization.
Hold open conversations about real issues. When there is an issue, the goal is to get it fixed, not go behind people’s backs and complain. Far better to approach the person and have an open conversation. Back up your statement with data. For example: “In the past month, you have missed three deadlines. Can we talk about what the problem might be?” Often, addressing the issue openly will help you uncover a root cause. Once you zero-in on the factor keeping the employee from doing their job properly, you can work with them to find a solution.
Encourage people to carry their own messages. If an employee comes to you complaining about a third party—whether it’s a fellow employee or an immediate supervisor—ask, “Have you spoken to this person directly?” A big part of creating an ownership mindset is teaching employees to work out their own conflicts and advocate for themselves rather than “telling on” people. Remember, the goal is always adult relationships. Adults resolve their own issues rather than stirring up drama.
Try to understand people’s motivations. “Sometimes an employee may create drama unintentionally,” says Studer. “Their motive might be pure but their delivery or process is broken. Maybe they really do need something fixed but don’t know how to go through the proper channels to get it done. Usually by having a probing conversation with the person, you’ll be able to figure out their motivation. You can then use it as a teachable moment, explaining how they might better handle similar situations in the future.”
Shut down troublemakers immediately. If you see that someone is intentionally engaging in bad behavior or stirring up trouble, take a two-pronged approach. First, don’t join in the conversation the troublemaker has started. Stay professional and aboveboard. Next, narrate to the troublemaker (and everyone) that drama is unacceptable. Reiterate the kind of environment you are trying to create inside your company. Sometimes we all need a gentle reminder.
Extend grace. Let people back in the fold. If someone has made a mistake, give them another chance. Don’t hold a grudge or, worse, turn the company against them. We’re all human and we all have bad moments and bad days. In general, discourage self-righteous or “I’m done here!” attitudes that assume the worst of people and make it okay to give up on them. Recognize the humanity and fallibility of others. In your words and actions demonstrate that extending a little grace to people when they stumble is a good thing.
Reward and recognize people who get it right. We all learn by example. For instance, when you see someone handling conflict in a positive way, thank them and acknowledge them publicly. Likewise, admit it when you get it wrong. If you do something that creates or perpetuates drama, own it and apologize. People respect leaders who are vulnerable and honest about their flaws.
“Few workplaces will ever be 100 percent drama-free,” concludes Studer. “Human beings have shortcomings and get carried away by emotions. Yet I believe that the vast majority of people truly want good things for their coworkers and their company. When they realize how destructive drama can be, and learn more productive ways to get their needs met, they will work hard to change for the better and create a stronger, more positive culture and a higher-performing organization.”
About the Author:
Quint Studer is the author of Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook and a lifelong businessman, entrepreneur, and student of leadership. He not only teaches it; he has done it. He has worked with individuals at all levels and across a variety of industries to help them become better leaders and create high-performing organizations. He seeks always to simplify high-impact leader behaviors and tactics for others.
Quint has a great love for teaching his insights in books and has authored nine of them in addition to The Busy Leader’s Handbook. His book Results That Last also made the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Building a Vibrant Community, published in 2018, is a blueprint for communities seeking to revitalize themselves.
Quint is the founder of Vibrant Community Partners and Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida.