Extinguishing employee drama

One of the more potentially costly things you can encounter as a manager is employee drama. While it’s generally unavoidable, it’s critical to the long term success of your career as a manager, or as an owner, to create a culture of drama non-proliferation at your business.

Eliminating it completely will be extremely difficult. Instead, you’ve got to learn (and train others to) detect and defuse employee drama at the first sign of smoke.

Why do they do it?

Drama has plenty of causes and ignition points:

  • Pet peeves, legitimate or otherwise
  • History with prior employers
  • Frustration with how projects are being executed
  • Frustration with a lack of control
  • Frustration with a lack of responsibility when accountability is on that person
  • Personality conflicts

There are a few other reasons, but today we’re going to stick to the ones that primarily cause workplace drama. What you’ll notice is that these mostly relate to work responsibilities in some way.

One that I mention – history with past employers – is a tough one. Sometimes you’ll hire someone who has been treated terribly in the past. It will take a while to build trust with them. Expect it to take longer than you think it should. You haven’t lived what they have and you haven’t seen it multiple times. When you see these things at multiple employers, it’s easy to assume that every employer works that way. Give it time.

The accountability, control and how executed reasons are related and tend to be different symptoms of the same thing – you’re hearing from someone who wants to do a better job, but their work is threatened or undermined in some way. You can deal with those things. Ask and keep asking how you can help. Ask what they need. Ask how they’d do it.

And then let them own it.

Don’t feed the beast

The beast is the drama monster. It’s an incredibly time-consuming (and thus expensive) distraction no business can afford.

You set the tone for whether drama creation is acceptable at your place. If you contribute to the rumor mill (which often rolls downhill to drama), you’re sending a signal that it’s OK whether you like it or not.
Even if you listen and say nothing, or nod your head as if you’re trying to be a good listener and say nothing, you’re still letting the fire burn.

The manager who lets drama fester and boil over risks a great deal:

  • Losing the respect of their team
  • Losing the respect of their management peers
  • Losing the respect of whoever they report to
  • Weakening (at best) the ability of their team to work and produce effectively

Fix the what and the why, not the who

Avoid the temptation to try and fix the person creating the drama. Instead, focus on why the drama occurs. We’ve already talked about the common reasons that stir it up. If you focus on the what and the why, you won’t feel the need to “fix” the who.

Trying to fix someone will be as difficult as trying to change their religion or their politics. Most likely – a waste of time. Instead, see what you can do to eliminate the reasons why it got started in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, you may find that giving accountability for the thing that created drama will allow it to self-resolve.

Dig deeper on the pet peeves and the personality conflicts. While legitimate personality conflicts do exist, many of them are symptoms of control and/or accountability problems (there is none or it’s in the wrong place). Pet peeves are often rooted in similar situations.

Train everyone how to defuse it

Most of the drama around your place is going to get stirred up when you aren’t around. If you’re the only one who can defuse it, you’ll eventually get the opportunity but by the time you do, it’s like putting out a small forest fire – it would’ve been easier to simply drown the campfire.

When you work one on one with your team, explain what you did after you defuse it. Every few months (or as necessary) go over drama reduction as a team. Show them how to help each other extinguish the flames while they’re only a small campfire.