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Workplace drama is just bad acting in a bad scene

Columnist Dave Conrad says wanting to add a little drama is human nature, but when it impacts your business it's time to end the scene.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

I am a manager and I have a workplace culture problem. The drama at my company is so thick you could cut it with a knife. People overreact, gossip is craved by a majority of the employees, negativity and anger are common, and everything is a crisis. This leads to a very tense environment, and temper flair-ups occur every day — if not hourly. Things are out of hand. I feel like I am a poor manager who cannot control his employees. Advice?

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— P

Dear P,

When employees of differing personalities are put together in a room or are connected by the internet, tempers will flare as they try to deal with one another. Most drama in the workplace is minor, but drama between employees that negatively affects everyone else in the workplace — and the quality of work being done — is another matter entirely.

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Workplace drama is when employees over-act and over-react — this makes for a very tense environment. Heated misunderstandings happen even between mild-mannered people. No matter how great the hiring practices, we human beings create a lot of drama when we don't know how to see things clearly and respond appropriately.

According to one management expert, workplace drama is like “emotional waste”: Energy that's diverted toward negativity and away from positive working environments and results. We can, and should, learn to control this negativity-bound energy, but its sources aren't always obvious.

In fact, drama is often quiet and hard to spot. But I think every manager should be on the prowl for it, identify it, and address it early and fully.

Why we love drama

I believe people — to varying degrees — enjoy drama. We have a constant desire to know what others are doing, how they're feeling, and the mistakes they're making. And this desire exists even while inside a professional environment. If I were the customer or supplier of a company that was inundated with overly dramatic employees — and it impacted my business and the relationships that I need — I would get busy finding new drama-free companies.

The workplace can easily become an environment filled with temperamental people discussing and sharing sensitive personal information, which creates a cesspool of social intrigue and suspense. Working eight hours a day, five days a week is hard — and often quite boring — so adding a little drama throughout the week spices things up nicely. We may also carry with us to work the drama we saw on last night’s Netflix latest episode.

What to do

First, as a manager you are expected to diagnose the problems. Take a look at these four drama-driven personality types (below) that one management theorist believes managers wrestle with:

  • Complainers. They blame others and don’t take responsibility for their actions.
  • Cynics. They are valued in the organization for their intellect, but only see the downside of all situations.
  • Controllers. They can dump work on any fellow employee and are master manipulators.
  • Caretakers. They are overly warm and fuzzy and want everyone to like them.

Understanding who you are dealing with, and how they think and react to people and work in general, helps you decide your next course of action for drama reduction. Try these tips to address all four personalities:

  • Crucial conversation. After you’ve diagnosed the drama problem and determined the personality types you are dealing with, have a direct conversation with the offenders about their behavior. Explain what behavior is and is not acceptable. Document your meetings.
  • Adapt to drama personalities. Each personality type requires a different management style, so you’ve got to be able to choose different approaches. For example, it’s often good to take a softer “listening” approach with complainers and caretakers, while remaining direct and assertive.
  • Stop gossip. As soon as you hear drama-producing gossip spreading, put a stop to it. If you can narrow a rumor down to the biggest violators, counsel them individually and try to halt the spread of any misinformation.
  • Separate fact from fiction. You must manage by truth. When facing any interpersonal conflict, it is crucial to keep an open mind until you hear all points of view. Then rectify the situation with a meeting, if necessary, with all affected employees, so the truth can be heard.
  • Carefully confront. Most people, who thrive on drama, believe in their drama, and they think their behavior is valid. Be tactful, but firm, and establish the fact that you can no longer accept the drama, because it is hurting the organization and the relationships with stakeholders.

One of the most effective ways to end drama in the workplace is to catch it early, before it gets out of hand. Therefore, try to be upfront with your employees about company news that is factual and impacts them directly, so reality can drive thinking and behavior.Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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