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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One of the challenges I see managers struggling with is finding a balance in their Leadership Style that works for them on a consistent basis without causing a great deal of internal strife.  They question how hard or soft they should be, should they be liked, are they coming off as a bitch, or how can they be more demanding and still keep good morale.  These are big questions and refining your Leadership Style can take years, but let me at least lay down some basic principles and help by debunking some management theory myths.

Today we have a world focused on cooperation, on consensus and collaboration, on teamwork, etc.  These have their place among management techniques, but not in forming your Leadership Style.  So start by realizing that good leadership does not come from reaching a consensus or through negotiations with employees about how you should lead.    Good Leadership in not situational.  Leadership stands tall, grounded in solid Values which you epitomize every day.

Being an effective Leader is about Respect.  Your team will deliver results for you only if they respect you.  They may like you or even love you, but these emotions, by themselves, are only self-serving, feel good propositions feeding your ego.  It takes respect to drive sustainable results.  And this is what your job is about – Sustainable Results!

My first rule is, “Leaders must be Tough.” No one is going to follow a wimp into battle.  A leader who cannot deal with adversity and difficulty while keeping their cool and delivering solutions will quickly be disregarded by the team.  And even worse, a Leader who does not know where he stands will find himself standing alone.  There is no place for wimps in the Leadership World.  I bet every teacher, coach, boss or friend you ever respected (not just liked) was tough.  Some of them may have been dynamic and some of them might have been quite souls, but they were tough.   They expected more out of you, they expected your best and you gave it to them.  Ever wonder why?

Many managers get off track right away.  They buy into the “false choice” of “mean or nice”, our first myth.  Some assume you have to yell at people, keep them down, criticize them, never compliment, etc.  In short they assume you have to be “mean”.  Those who decide to take the “mean” route quickly alienate people who then take every opportunity to help him fail.  At best this technique gets short-term results from a resentful group of people.  Not wanting to be mean, others take the nice route, always empathizing with their team’s problems and failings believing they must be doing their best.  They want to be friends with their team.  These managers, who take the “nice” route, are constantly run over and are burdened with the internal struggle between wanting to be liked and the feeling of being taken advantage of.  Leadership Toughness is not about “mean or nice.”

When I am teaching this lesson to frustrated managers, they usually jump in about here and say, “Yes, Yes; Tough but Fair right?”  Wrong! Here is where we have to debunk the second myth of Leadership.  The word “fair” is a “straw man argument”.  You should eliminate the word “fair” from your vocabulary this instant.  Fair assumes and implies there is some universal set of principles and values which every single person sees the same way and agrees on.  Really?  Fair doesn’t exist.  Fair is filled with self perception, self fulfillment, and self-interest.  Even a third-party deciding an issue on the basis of “fair” will interject bias and belief systems which may be based in his own personal interpretation of these  “not so” universal truths.  I have seen employees use “fair” as a very effective weapon against accountability over and over again.  Next time you hear the word used, freeze the conversation and study the tactic.  Once you see how it is clearly being used as a manipulation, you’ll be able to avoid this Leadership pit fall.

A Leader must have knowledge, skills, abilities and experience but Respect is built (not earned) through the tough application of three main values:

Setting Expectations

Honesty

Commitment

A Leader must set Expectations.  They must be clear and understood by everyone on your team.  If you read my article, Building the A- Team, you will remember the concept of establishing attributes which an employee “must have” if they are to be on your A-Team.  This is where expectations from a Leader begin.  These A-Team Expectations must be entrenched in your culture.  They are non-negotiable, mandatory requirements of being a part of your team.  If one of the A-Team Expectations is “Work Ethic” and everyone understands it, then as the Leader you are obligated to require this.  No consensus – No Collaboration! It is a requirement!  The first question I ask a manager who is complaining about their group’s performance or attitude is, “What are your expectations of the team.  How clear have you made these?”  Often we end up making a list and developing a plan to reintroduce the expectations to the group.  Making up ground in this area can be difficult, so better to start early with your group and avoid what may be perceived as a re-negotiation later.  Talk about expectations everyday and openly as if they are a good thing.  Get them out of your wishful mind, off of the piece of paper, and into everyday conversations. There is nothing wrong with looking your team straight in the eye and saying, “Team, this is going to be a difficult task and I expect everyone to give me their best.”  Take pride in your expectations and your team will too!

Secondly, you must be honest.  Does this sound easy?  It is not, and it is a major road block to a high performing team.  Managers ask me all of the time how I am able to have difficult and direct conversations with people.  They are concerned with being “mean” again.  I explain they must refocus their paradigm.  Instead of the “nice or mean” false choice, I ask them if they would like to be an honest or dishonest person.  Of course, honest is the answer. Honesty is most likely even one of the expectations of your team.  But being honest is uncomfortable.  Even with our best friends we can find ourselves holding back so as to not offend them.  Or the classic, “No Honey, that new dress doesn’t look too tight on you.”  If it is this hard with people who are close to us, how are you to be honest with those who work for you.  Honesty involves a degree of conflict.  Good leaders are comfortable with conflict.  Remember, being a Leader takes toughness.

Most people make the mistake of jumping to the extreme; to something called “brutal honesty.”  Does this sound like a good idea?  It may be an easy way out, but anything “brutal” is going to be met with an equally brutal defense and the message will be lost.  Honesty must come from a place of caring.  You have to sincerely want to help the person be better and grow so they can realize their personal success.  If you are honest and sincere; if you really care about helping and if you can talk about where clear and established expectations aren’t being met, you will see a rapid positive improvement from the A-Player.  If you don’t, read my article, Building the A-Team, once again.  You are dealing with a C-Player.  Remove them.

There is a flip side to the difficulty of the Honesty proposition.  Some people have a difficult time “paying” a compliment (does it really cost anything) and saying “good job” to a team member.  Be tough and get it out.  In fact never miss an opportunity to acknowledge where someone has exceeded expectations.  As children we were told how well we were doing all of the time.  As adults we have become desensitized and have learned not to expect it.   If you want to see someone really get fired up and charge out of the room ready to go through walls for you, sit them down and use my secret phrase, “I AM REALLY PROUD OF YOU.”  Most people haven’t heard this spoken to them since they were thirteen years old.  Watch them beam!

 

The third foundation to building respect as a Leader is Commitment.  Do not confuse this with another management myth called “consistent”.   The myth that managers must be consistent is a sub-category under the fairness scheme.  And by now you know how I feel about “fair”.  The idea that a manager is supposed to treat all similar situations the same would deprive him of a key Leadership trait which he must possess – Judgment.   If an A-Player comes in three days in row late because of personal problems, you are not going to treat it the same way as a marginal employee who can’t get to work on time.   I know; not fair, right?

A manager focuses on managing situations.  A-Leader focuses on reinforcing and uplifting Values.  Here is where Commitment comes in.  You must be 100% committed to your expectations.  They are not some-time things.  Your team can never doubt how serious you are about what you expect.  You can’t joke about them, you can’t criticize upper management’s dealings with them, and you cannot join around the water cooler and listen to any dissension about them.  Your Expectations and Values must be your Code.  You need to live them even when it is tough to do so.  Your future as a Leader depends on it.

You also need to be committed to the success of your team.  Not just as a group, but as individuals.  They need to know you are in their corner, if you want them to come out fighting for you.  If you want to raise the bar with them, meet with them one on one and tell them you are committed to their success and you will consider any failure of theirs a personal failure as well.  Discuss their role in meeting your expectations.  Make it personal.  Real Commitment has to be “personal” for it to matter.

Now remember that teacher, coach or boss you respected so much.  Remember how you knew exactly what you were supposed to do.  How you were expected to give your very best all of the time.  How they challenged your very best with an honest “kick in the butt” and lifted your spirits with that simple “pat on the back”.  Remember their strength, their commitment to what they taught and what they expected…and to your personal success.  Aren’t they the ones who you still talk about years later?  Wouldn’t you go back to work for them in a second and even be better this time around?  Remember how tough they were!  These were the Street Smart Leaders in your life.