There are few evils which contend in destroying a Culture’s Soul more than Workplace Drama.  This wicked fiend slithers throughout an organization leaving a trail of overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful people.  Rapidly, processes break down, tasks cease to be completed, and everyone is exhausted.  The fun, the pop, the trust of a team is supplanted with a focus stealing chaos that consumes the team’s lifeblood.  Many managers living with Workplace Drama are easily confounded and can lose faith in their passion.  Their Vision becomes clouded and they begin to give up the cause.

Dealing with Workplace Drama is one of the least rewarding parts of being a Leader. It has the potential to suck the life out of you, and to eradicate your motivation.  Often it leaves mangers wondering: “Why did I choose this career?” “I just don’t get it. What is everyone’s problem? Why can’t they just do their work? It’s like dealing with children.”

Occasionally people need to blow off some steam.  They huddle around the water-cooler sounding off about a particular boss or co-worker.  Mostly it is momentary harmless banter.  The water-cooler tête-à-tête provides an outlet or release which can be healthy venting in measured doses.  But when the line is crossed and your team becomes stirred up, immobilized, upset, unhappy and otherwise dysfunctional, you have a calamity on your hands.    The culprits will begin to withhold information, manipulate situations, steal ideas, or act helpless so that others will come to their aid and give them extra help. Individuals are depicted as fools or villains and all of a sudden, everything is a big deal to the point of exhaustion. Everything is elevated to crisis proportions.  And your boss is looking at you and wondering why you can’t keep your team “under control”.

Workplace Drama must be eradicated immediately before its malignancy spreads.  Unimpeded, Workplace Drama will scathe productivity and foster a detrimental effect on accuracy and quality.  It will dissect a Team’s unity and become the focus of their work activities and priorities.  Those directly involved in the drama will take their “eye off of the ball” and induce costly mistakes.  This time waster, founded in bad behavior, prevents everyone from being great.  It reduces everything you are trying to build.  Unless you are prepared and equipped to contend with Workplace Drama, it will draw you into it as well and denigrate your standing as a Leader.  As usual everyone knows the score, and they are waiting.  Waiting to see what you are going to do about it.

Let’s start off by gaining a basic understanding of Workplace Drama.  Believe it or not the Drama is a predictable plot with predefined roles.  The moves of the “Game” are always the same.  In 1968 Stephen Karpman developed the Drama Triangle as a psychological and social model of human interaction in transactional analysis.  Karpman’s Triangle conjectures three habitual role-plays which drama seekers adopt:

● The Victim – The person who is treated or accepts the role of being vulnerable

Victim’s Moto – “I’m Blameless”             Victim’s Need – Love

● The Persecutor – The person who pressures, coerces, or persecutes the Victim

Persecutor’s Moto – “I’m Right”              Persecutor’s Need – Power

● The Rescuer – The person who intervenes; ostensibly wishing to help the situation or underdog

Rescuer’s Moto – “I’m Good”                   Rescuer’s Need – Acceptance

The Victim appears depressed, fearful, needy, having low self-esteem and looking for help or answers from others.  The Victim’s nemesis, the Persecutor, finger points, finds fault, has angry outbursts, a lack of compassion, clams perfection and judges others.    And the Rescuer demonstrates controlling tendencies, giving unwanted advice, over-extending, taking on other people’s problems while trying to be the hero.

Karpman explains a game of “con” and “hook” setting off a “switch” and finally the “payoff”.  The moves continue as the drama progresses.  In this Drama Triangle the players act out an unstable and emotionally competitive “mind game” which generates misery and discomfort for each other.  The covert purpose for each ‘player’ is to get their unspoken (and frequently unconscious) psychological wishes and needs met in a manner they feel justified, without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole

Important in Karpman’s observations is the occurrence of the players frequently switching roles as the game progresses.  The drama plays out with the protagonist starting off in one of the three main roles: Rescuer, Persecutor, or Victim, with the other principal player (the antagonist) in one of the other roles. As the drama game progresses the two players move around the triangle switching roles, so that for example the victim turns on the rescuer, or the rescuer switches to persecuting.  Perhaps the victim goes on the offensive and begins to persecute the persecutor who then becomes the victim.  And it goes round and round.  That is, until you step up and do something about it.

So now that you realize this is a game with predetermined roles and routines, you can stop the insanity before it demolishes your team.  Your first move is a preemptive strike.  You need to firmly set the expectation in every team member’s mind that you will not tolerate “Drama”.  This should be one of your compulsory attributes for being on the A Team.  It should be discussed in Company Meetings, Team Meetings and Individual Counseling Sessions.  Make it crystal clear that you have a “No Tolerance” policy towards Workplace Drama.  Openly denounce gossip and backstabbing as inexcusable actions.  And let it be known the perpetrators, regardless of the drama role they choose, will be dealt with with severely.

Next identify your Drama Queens (or Kings).  These are those in your organization who reveal a penchant towards adopting one of the three drama roles.  In fact, they may even go further and want or need to play out the roles.  The drama queen may be a neurotic and self-centered perfectionist.  Often they are considered to be exceptionally talented, but this is not always the case.  A drama queen may be jealous or envious of others, which can make any personal failings even more painful and trigger irrational thoughts of revenge.  In a drama queen’s world, people can be either with her or against her; there are no stages in between.  The Drama Queen or King collects followers with similar proclivities and initially holds court to entertain while attempting to pull them into the game.

While a drama queen might find her forceful personality and manipulation skills useful in some situations, her inability to control her emotions and to form meaningful relationships creates a liability for you if left unchecked.  Watch your drama queens and kings for sign of instigation.  Understand the situations that will launch them into action and anticipate their play.  By thinking ahead of these divas, you will be able to control the outbreak when it happens.

In managing a drama situation, begin by ensuring you are not a participant in the drama.  Check yourself against the roles and objectively remove your emotions from game-play.  Karpman’s theory states that if you play one role, you eventually play them all. But here is the biggest eye opener of all. If you are in the midst of interpersonal challenges and you still can’t identify your part, then you are in the middle of the triangle, and that is called denial.  Know that you stand on firm ground as a Tough Leader, and you can act with integrity and authority.

Once the game is on, commence your counter attack by bringing the entire Team together.  They too, have been witness to what is going on and know far more than you about the situation.  In your meeting, treat the group as a whole.  Do not deal with the drama players specifically.  Re-establish your “No Drama” expectations and restate your no tolerance policy.  Show your dissatisfaction with the lack of teamwork in solving the current situation (without going into the details).  Reinforce to everyone that time and money is being wasted with destructive personal agendas.

Now pay attention. One of your drama players is going to try and put their issues on the table to justify them.  Your Victim is going to start off with, “Well, I just don’t think its fair when…” or your Persecutor is going to start with a direct attack or your Rescuer is going to try and make peace.  You know the game and you’re ready for it.  They are trying to drag you into it.  Now shut them down hard!  Firmly state that you are not going to get into the details of the situation.  Instead, the Team is going to reaffirm rules of behavior to go forward with.  Make clear the Team’s need for functionality is your priority and not an individual’s claim on righteousness.  Then lead the Team in developing “Rules of Engagement” for the Team.  Write them on the board for everyone to see.  Facilitate a healthy outcome by focusing on principles of respect and honesty.   Specifically discuss and agree as to how conflict situations will be handled going forward.  Starting now!  Usually they determine to first try and work out a problem directly between themselves and then elevate to management if this does not work.  You need to make sure the result is that they talk with the person they are having the problem with or they talk to you.  They are not allowed to talk to anyone else regarding their complaint.  Stress this rule!

You would think in our current world of tolerance, collaboration, and “can’t we all just get along” philosophy that this would be the end of it all and everyone would go back to work and progress.  Not even close.  In fact, I don’t ever remember one of these meetings working out.  So why did you go through all of that?  Because, remember, it is game and you are playing.  The meeting was you move to set up the final play.  Your winning play!  You didn’t take sides, you didn’t mediate, you didn’t get emotional, and most importantly you didn’t join the drama game.  All you did was establish proper standards for conduct.  After all, the issue at hand is distinct from the bad conduct of Workplace Drama.  Now sit back and watch for a few weeks.  One of your drama players will recidivate.

It is time for you to pounce into action.  Now you set up a meeting with the offender.  Get ready.  They will come armed to plead their case on the merits.  As they embark on their reasoning, let them know you are aware of the situation and you are handling it.  But this is not the purpose of the meeting.  You want to talk to them about their unacceptable conduct.  They are disregarding the company’s “No Drama” policy, they are breaking the Team “Rules of Engagement”, and they are a problem to you.  Acknowledge the difficulties they are having with the situation or the person, but reiterate the proper way to deal with those problems is not through divisive backroom games.

Look them straight in the eye.  Are you ready to win this game they want to play?  Tell them directly and honestly that they will lose their job if they do not put an end to the drama.  Let them know that if they continue to threaten the culture, productivity, and teamwork of your Team you are going to fire them.  Explain this is not a time sensitive issue and you expect their attitude and behavior to change starting tomorrow.  End your session by reinforcing their value to the organization and your hope that they will take your honest warning seriously.  Check Mate!  Whatever path they choose to take, you have eliminated them as a drama player.  And everyone else watched you fortify a key value of the company.

Workplace Drama can steal your company’s soul and dishearten your personal drive.  It damages everyone associated with it and renders poor performance results.  In the end it drives a stake through the culture and any ability to have fun.  A Street Smart Leader shuts down the drama game, sets the tone of personal accountability, respect, choice, and principled behavior in the organization and work culture.  He protects the value of trust which allows people to grow and excel.

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