Do This Not That: A Guide to Drama in the Workplace

UPDATED: July 25, 2016
PUBLISHED: July 25, 2016

No dramatic narrative is complete without an element of conflict. When there is tension between two opposing forces, drama ensues. This structure is as true in the business world as it is in storytelling. Unfortunately, rather than just driving a narrative, drama in interpersonal relationships often becomes more destructive than productive. This truth stems from the fact that we are often more invested in justifying our negative behavior than in actually creating anything worthwhile. Gallup estimates that active disengagement at work due to dramatic interactions costs U.S. businesses as much as $550 billion per year. Building positive relationships at work has been proven to be one of the most compelling reasons for employees to remain loyal to a company, even more so than compensation.

Why are we so seemingly predisposed to engaging in drama in our lives? Drama is easy for us to partake in because, for most of us, we’ve grown up turning conflict into drama and learning to do so from the examples set by our parents, family members and pop culture role models. Beyond the lives we’re directly interacting with, turn on the TV and you’ll see drama everywhere, from the news to reality shows. Modern society has taught us that drama equals excitement. Drama is easy for us to turn to because it capitalizes on our basic human nature to want to be justified. We love to be able to say, “I told you so,” no matter how delusional or unhealthy our behavior and beliefs are.

Related: 4 Reasons Complaining to Your Co-Worker About Another Co-Worker Is a Bad Idea

Drama is more entrenched in our daily lives than we realize. It can take the form of workplace gossip as employees whisper things they’ve heard about the new CEO through the rumor mill. It’s the blaming and finger pointing that occurs when something goes wrong on a project. Even minor complaints over the course of time add up to create an environment full of drama and drained of productivity. Drama creates a vicious cycle, and misery certainly loves company. Drama only begets more drama as people look for others with whom they can commiserate.

As rewarding as it might be in the short term, the behaviors associated with those who engage in drama are ineffective, and divert energy away from healthy interpersonal interactions and organizational goals. So how can business leaders address conflict without succumbing to the drama siren? Instead, try using compassionate accountability, which is the art of using conflict to catalyze positive outcomes. Conflict creates powerful energy that can be manifested into something good. Everyone from executives and employees to families and friends can start practicing compassionate accountability in their everyday interactions by applying these three techniques:

1. Open up.

When there’s conflict, it’s important to disclose your true motives and honest feelings. Let the other party know what you want so everyone understands each other’s intentions. It’s critical that in this initial step, no blame is placed. Transparency is one of the most important steppingstones toward creating fruitful interactions that eliminate drama.

  • Drama: “When will you have this ready? I’ve been waiting all day.”
  • More productive: “I haven’t told you that I am really working toward a promotion over the next couple months. I’ve been anxious because I rely a lot on you.”

2. Be a resource.

Let them know what you can offer to help solve the conflict, and what you need from the other party to be successful. Be careful not to give unsolicited advice about what another person can or should do, as this will put the other party on the defensive and contribute to the escalation of drama. Share only what you have to offer in order to facilitate a positive conversation.

  • Drama: “Maybe you should stay late so you get it done on time.”
  • More productive: “If you are interested, I’m happy to share strategies that have worked for me.”

3. Establish boundaries.

Identify your non-negotiables. Conflict occurs when there’s a gap between what we want and what we are getting. Be clear about what you want, what’s at stake and what it means to you. This step is about establishing clarity of purpose and boundaries, and self-respect. It’s easy to slip up here and start issuing ultimatums or making threats, so be cognizant of that temptation while still outlining where the line is for you.

  • Drama: “Fine! I’ll email your résumé to my contact, but I’m not going to talk to them for you.”
  • More productive: “I will certainly give you a recommendation. I will reach out to my contact via email and pass along your CV. Because I don’t have a personal relationship with this person, I won’t do a phone introduction.”

Compassion at its core is a joint experience. Letting someone know you are alongside them through any conflict or struggle will create a bond that eliminates drama and opens the door for productive communication. Compassion doesn’t have to be a touchy-feely lovefest of emotion or a disingenuous display of kindness. It’s all about empathy and transparency, and making sure that any missteps along the way are turned into launching pads for future success.

Compassion goes a long way toward increasing trust and loyalty between employees and the leadership team. Whether in business or life, eliminating drama and replacing it with compassionate accountability is the key to productive relationships and communication. Workplace conflict is guaranteed to come up, but approaching it with constructive techniques will mitigate harm and help break the cycle of unproductive interaction.

Related: 5 Tips to End Workplace Conflict Once and For All

Nate Regier

Dr. Nate Regier is the co-founder, owner and chief executive of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in leadership communication. A former practicing psychologist, Dr. Nate Regier has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, team building, and change management. An international advisor, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model® certifying master trainer and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama® training and coaching.