Sick of workplace drama?
HR Business Partner

Written by Marnie Brokenshire

August 31, 2022

Let’s call it out – any workplace drama is exhausting and debilitating.  It affects culture, well-being, performance, and the bottom line.

The rule of thumb here is simple, if the drama feels like it would be typical of a schoolyard, a reality TV show or a dysfunctional family, then it is not healthy for the workplace. After 30 years in HR I’ve seen it all! This is a list of “10 Types” of people and behaviours that cause unnecessary workplace drama:
1. The Poor Time Keeper – always late and then spends 10 minutes telling everyone why.
2. The Over-sharer – always has a personal life drama and brings everyone along for the ride (in detail).
3. The ‘Unmediated’ – the co-workers that don’t get along and each of them ensures that everyone independently knows their point of view on every dispute.
4. The Pessimist – the first to tell you it’s bad, the future is dim, quick to offer up a negative comment, a criticism or a snide or rude remark.
5. The White-Anter – finds endless ways to undermine and shaft – blame is their favourite sport.
6. The Unsatisfied – nothing is ever good enough – from the ply of the toilet paper to the proximity of their desk to the bus stop.
7. The Bitch – default position is nasty – talks behind people’s backs, always bitchy!
8. The Gossip – creates and spreads rumours and scandal.
9. The Professionally Outraged – critical, shocked or appalled by most decisions, would always have done it better/differently.
10. The Manipulator – walks both sides of the street and taps into all of the ‘Types’ from 1-9!

“If the drama feels like it belongs on a reality TV show or in a dysfunctional family, it is not healthy for the workplace.”

The cause and impact.

The impact is obvious.  It’s just not fun, creates distractions of no value, and makes it hard for high performers to thrive – and it breeds unconscious bias.
Drama saps time, focus and energy from Leaders (the drama free ones), and most certainly from HR, so what’s the root cause?  Here are the top 4 reasons:
1.  Toxic Leadership
It starts at the top!  Leaders who pit people against each other, set people up to fail, thrive in discord, and display any of the “10 Types” of behaviour themselves, are creating the drama – monkey see, monkey do!
2.  Lack of Trust & Confidence
Cultures that lack trust and confidence can quickly become an incubator of drama. Read my article here for more ideas about building a healthy (or psychologically safe) workplace culture.
3.  Lack of Accountability
The framework for acceptable behaviour isn’t clear. Leaders and people aren’t being held to account for their behaviour, it isn’t being managed.
4.  Lack of Transparency
Way too much ‘secret squirrel’, people guessing, Leaders not sharing information in a meaningful, honest and timely way, no effective internal comms strategy, and no forums for sharing ideas, views and opinions.

How to stop it.

I noticed a post on LinkedIn from a “senior” leader the other day. The poster was thanking her team for being there for her during a week of ‘tragedy and emotion’. She started the post with a statement about people who say “don’t bring your problems to work” are bad for business, rather; ‘we should all be there for each other through thick and thin, and without her team to lean on, she wouldn’t survive’, or words to that effect.

I immediately thought two things. The first was immense empathy for her team – imagine how horrendous that week was for them as they all tried to do their jobs whilst propping up their boss during a personal life crisis/meltdown.  The second; ‘what a way to make it all about you!’ And as to a public post – I’m just baffled – the drama now spilling outside the organisation.

As Leaders, there is a line between the professional workplace and our personal lives. I know that some of Australia’s most successful senior leaders would not expect their teams to prop them up during a meltdown, sharing every grim detail, dragging everyone through it. As Leaders, the line should only be crossed if you are supporting the people you are charged with leading. Making your problems their problems is exhausting and debilitating and doing nothing to build credibility. This behaviour only builds dependency and that is unhealthy.

We must be vulnerable but in the context of driving outcomes and achieving great things. Leaders who create workplace drama, or share their personal drama, are not inspirational leaders; people need inspirational leaders.

Here are some simple ways to stop the drama:

 

  • Embed emotional intelligence competencies into your leadership training – teach self-awareness and self-regulation as a priority. 
  • Teach people what the behaviour looks like (think bullying and harassment training) and provide training on how to channel the drama and the negativity into meaningful contributions. Teach vulnerability in a workplace context. Many people don’t know where the line is because they’ve never been shown. Be clear about boundaries, and be clear about what constructive behaviour looks like. If you have values that are underpinned by behaviour to build the right culture, then make sure that people understand what this means (looks like). Our article from our sister company may be helpful – here.

 

  • Have a zero tolerance policy – all drama gets addressed, not ignored. Create accountability in your policy and practice, and then live it in real life.

 

  • Call it out. I find it staggering how much drama gets ignored. We are asked to provide advice on how to address poor behaviour all the time – our first question is always; “have you had a discussion“? So often the answer is no. A constructive conversation where the impact of the behaviour is explained and development suggestions are made is essential.
  • Have a mechanism for people to vent regularly and listen! Read this article which has some ideas on how to do that. Provide an outlet for frustration to be shared and bring it out into the open so that it doesn’t fester into drama.

If one of these “10 Types” hit home a little too hard, do some self reflection and make change. We have a diagnostic tool that is excellent for understanding your thinking and how this may be manifesting in behaviour – it could be worth a go. Your behaviour may be unintentional but the impact is significant.

Further insights can be found in an excellent book by Patti Perez, The Drama-Free Workplace: How you can Prevent Unconscious Bias, Sexual Harassment, Ethics Lapses and Inspire a Healthy Culture (2019).  It’s worth a read.

If you are a Leader or HR practitioner, dealing with drama takes you away from valuable, meaningful work.   Contact us now to discuss our tailored program that will help you make changes.

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