7 Reasons for Workplace Drama and What to Do About it

Tuesday September 13, 2016 comments

What’s worse than workplace drama? It’s right up there with election year political attack ads. Pretty much everyone hates both, wishes they would go away, puts up with it thinking it will end soon. The attack ads do – at least for a little while; the workplace drama doesn’t self-resolve. That’s where leadership comes in.

There are numerous reasons office drama happens. It manifests itself in attitude, gossip, complaining, overreaction, hurt feelings, sides, resentment and a lot of other things that have one big impact: a huge decrease in productivity.

Dr. Larry Baker of Time Management Center, Inc., did a study a few years ago – 200 companies around the world, 38,000 employees, and a lot of interesting answers. It showed that in America, we work an average of 45 hours per week, but are productive 29. That’s just under 65% productivity. Salary.com did one that showed employees are productive an average of 6.8 hours per day, but worked 8.5. That’s 80% productivity. Whatever the real number is, there’s a lot of nonproductive time. Drama – from supervisors, employees, vendors, or customers - is a large part of it.

I find 7 main reasons for workplace drama, and right ways to deal with each:

  1. Bad Fit. When you take a square peg person and try to pound him into a round hole, it’s just not comfortable for anyone. Bad fit is usually caused by hiring someone too quickly and ignoring the red flags, or by becoming enamored with someone’s experience or skills and overlooking his values, behaviors, and alignment with your culture. Don’t do that. And if you find you have, deal with it quickly. It shouldn’t take long to recognize. Finessing your way out can.
  2. Unclear Objectives. In Dr. Baker’s study, unclear objectives were one of the top contributors to nonproductive time. Objectives, goals, plans – this is general direction stuff that people expect from leaders. When people don’t see how what they do fits into what the organization wants to do, work becomes meaningless. When work becomes meaningless, a lackadaisical attitude manifests and you hear it in phrases like, “that’s not my job,” “no one told me I had to do that,” “it’s not my fault,” or “does it really matter?” When you see that, reprimanding won’t really change anything. Reengaging the person can. Help her see the vision, see the strategies, see how her role is crucial in that. Help her feel like you are paying her for her intelligence and not just to check off tasks. Ask her opinions; people love to give those.
  3. Unclear Expectations About Behaviors. When we don’t set clear expectations about behaviors – no matter what the standards are – a lot of people won’t behave the way we think they should in our operations. They’ll revert to what they know which could be from the dysfunctional place they used to work. Or, in absence of clear standards, they might create their own, which look nothing like your expectations. Take the time to articulate behavioral expectations – called norms. Define your “way,” in a way that everyone can identify with and own it.
  4. Overlooking Behaviors. If one person is allowed to get away with unacceptable attitudes or behaviors, 3 things happen. First, that one person feels validated, superior, and untouchable. Second, marginal performers will follow that person’s lead and act out the same way. Third, great employees will wonder why the leader is seemingly oblivious or condoning of the behavior. People aren’t all the same and don’t have the same capabilities. The answer? Be aware and tolerant of different abilities, without making concessions that undermine standards. Keep focusing on standards, and hold everyone accountable to the same ones.
  5. Ego. The lack of humility and self-awareness can be one of the biggest contributors to drama in any group of people. There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness; between sure of oneself and being stuck on oneself. Some people are wired for ego. More likely than not, a large part of it is caused by a lack of perspective, correction, counsel, and confrontation. Be honest and forthright with the people on your team. If someone thinks more highly of himself than he should, he needs to hear why he’s not all that in the context of the value you see in him. Failure to address ego can create prima dons and donnas.
  6. Insubordination. I’ve been amazed many times in my career, where a leader will put up with insubordinate behavior or language because the person is good at what she does. When we tolerate that kind of behavior, it undermines our credibility and sends a message that it’s ok to be treated that way. You don’t have to go all alpha dog to change that, but you do have to set and maintain a standard of respect. Demonstrate it first, but then expect it.
  7. Gossip / Triangulation. Gossip is probably one of the most destructive behaviors in the workplace. It sucks the life out of a group, undermines values and norms, creates sides, and alienates people that you need to work well together. Allowing it permits offenses to be shared, making them harder to resolve. The funny thing is, virtually everyone hates gossip! We slide into it without really thinking about it. The best way to stop gossip from becoming your culture is to be honest about it happening, get agreement that it’s not the way you intend to behave going forward, and empower every member of the team to stop it. Takes some work, but it can be so liberating when everyone views gossip as the enemy rather than one another.

There are a lot of other reasons why workplace drama happens, and even more creative solutions to it. The above are generic ideas only. The best solutions will be tailored to your culture, your team, your vision, and your values.

Human behavior is kind of fascinating. Someone recently asked me why people had to mess up a particular institution he had liked. I laughed and commented that people can mess up businesses, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, politics… that’s all part of being human. We’re all in it together and none of us is above messing it up for others. The drama is the messed up part; the solution is the adventure.


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