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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Some managers confuse being busy with getting things done.   Or worse, they confuse getting things done with making progress.  These have nothing to do with each other.  It is easy to be busy.  Advancing a Team towards the achievement of company goals takes a Leader.  The difference between activity and results can often be a product of the nature of issues receiving focus.  It can be in understanding the difference between Critical Issues and Strategic Issues.

All activity is not equal.  To gain long-term success, managers need to examine the activities they are dedicating time towards and determine whether they are “running in place” or aggressively moving forward.

Let’s start with understanding Critical Issues.  Critical Issues are those problems that if you are successful solving,  return right back to where they should have been in the first place.  Read this again…“right back to where they should have been”.

Typically you are fixing something’s or someone’s deficiency.  The pattern moves from a problem occurring, to problem resolution, then back to where things started.  If you’re incessantly dealing with Critical Issues,  you are likely feeling very reactive either “putting out fires” or “draining swamps”.  And feeling overwhelmed by the lack of time to make meaningful improvements.

Replacing an employee who has been fired or has quit is a good example of a Critical Issue.  The employee leaves then you: have multiple meetings; get their workload covered; begin interviewing; hire the replacement; train the replacement; deal with the people issues of adding someone new to the team; redistribute the workload; the new employee begins performing. All this “busy” work and where is the situation?  Right back where it started.

A strong manager has to be adept at dealing with Critical Issues.  They always exist and can hit in a variety of unexpected ways.  But taking too much pride in yourself, as a Critical Issues problem solver, can be a dangerous trap.

 

Strategic Issues, on the other hand, advance your company to a better place from where it started.  Strategic accomplishments improve your Team.  They increase productivity, competitiveness, selling results, profitability. These are the initiatives that will make a definitive difference for your company.

It is important to start comprehending the key strategic directives of your organization.  Then you must find a means to spend quality time with your Leadership to understand and set specific goals for your team which will form the building blocks for driving strategy forward.  These are your Strategic Issues.  Own them!

Examples of Strategic Issues are: creating a new marketing campaign, developing a more streamlined process, a new sales deployment strategy, or improving customer service and exceeding the capabilities of your competition. They each take your company to a higher level of achievement.  They put the company in a new place ahead of where it began.

 

Again, I am not suggesting you can ignore the Critical Issues.  Quite the contrary, you must efficiently and expeditiously deal with them and put them behind.  Don’t look for too much praise for fixing broken things.  Your responsibility is to run your business unit proactively and with incomparable quality so these problems do not come about in the first place. I have dealt with managers who are constantly running around in crisis mode playing the role of Superhero, beating their chest, and claiming the place couldn’t survive without them.  In due time their ineffectiveness shines through.  It becomes apparent to their Leadership that someone with so many problems to solve may be the problem themselves.

Realizing the difference between Strategic and Critical Issues provides the capacity to really make a difference and distinguish yourself.  Think about this.  A great Street Smart Leader looks for the opportunity to take a Critical Issue and develop it into a Strategic Result.  In doing so, they are able to leap past problem resolution and find a new opportunity to advance the company to a higher level of performance.  Turning a Critical Issue into a Strategic Result creates true value and progress for your organization.  These are the exceptional turn-around situations you can build a career upon.  They are the rungs of your ladder.

Let’s take the Critical Issue of replacing an employee mentioned earlier.  Imagine instead, you were able to develop a new streamlined process allowing the restructuring of your group while producing a better quality deliverable without replacing the employee at all.  There is a Strategic achievement!  Now you can take a bow!

 

Begin using this knowledge by taking out your task list, notebook, priority matrix, or whatever you use to keep organized.  Then next to each entry write the letter ”C” (in red) for Critical Issues and “S” (in green) for Strategic Issues.  Even use red and green folders for your work on these issues.  If you only have “C’s”, I would suggest you take a hard look at your company’s strategy and re-dedicate yourself to making a difference.  Look at your “S’s”.  I bet you have been meaning to get to several of them for quite some time.  It is easy to put these on the back burner when you’re in problem solving mode.  Don’t let this happen.  Good intentions are just that – intentions.  Leaders demand results!  Make sure you are spending time each week advancing Strategic Issues.  And remember to rack your brain and dig out the opportunities concealed in Critical Issues.  With Strategic Focus you can break the pattern, stop “running in place”, and leap forward.

Strategic Issues are the differentiating factor in business.  As you move up the chain of command and gain additional responsibility, you will see your task list become filled with more and more Strategic Issues. They are worth your extra time, even if it requires late nights and Saturday mornings. To be a truly successful Leader, you must adopt a “No Excuses” attitude towards accomplishing Strategic Issues.   Take the leap!