Most of us have experienced or even contributed to workplace drama. People gossip, spread rumors, complain, lash out emotionally, rant about a perceived wrong, purposely exclude others, take sides in conflicts, and more. No matter how it manifests itself, drama can be highly destructive inside a small business.
“Drama contributes to a less professional workplace,” says lifelong businessman and leadership mentor Quint Studer. “It tears teams apart, hurts productivity, and creates a kind of culture that drives high performers away.”
Those who create workplace drama aren’t always doing it intentionally, he believes. It stems from people not knowing how to handle conflict or engage in tough conversations.
Regardless of the reasons, leaders should have a zero-tolerance stance against drama. Here are some of his tips for keeping peace at work.
Model the behavior you want to see
Don’t participate in drama yourself. Don’t gossip or badmouth anyone. Strive to always be aboveboard, fair, respectful, and positive.
A leader always sets the tone for workplace behavior. If it’s okay for you to do it, employees assume it’s okay for them to, as well. Be aware of the messages you’re sending.
Drama thrives in secretive environments. That’s why businesses should be as open as they can be about everything from financials to performance metrics to changes that might be coming in the future. The less people have to speculate about, the less likely they’ll gossip.
Have a system for managing conflict
Give employees specific steps they can take to resolve issues with each other. For instance, encourage people to carry their own messages. If an employee comes to you complaining about a third party, ask, “Have you spoken to this person directly?” A big part of creating an ownership mindset is teaching employees to work out their own conflicts rather than “telling on” people. Adults resolve their own issues rather than stirring up drama.
Ask for specificity
“When people make blanket statements like ‘everybody says’ and ‘everybody thinks,’ ask them for the particulars,” says Studer. “Who is ‘everybody’?” When people start using generalities like this to build a case, they can typically name only one or two people. They create a lot of emotion without a lot of substance. Forcing specificity helps to put issues in perspective and shut down drama.”
Stop repeating the story
When something happens to upset employees, they often feel the need to tell their story over and over – because they’re looking for either attention or support. The stories then become larger than life and perpetuate negativity. Leaders need to be careful not to repeat stories themselves, and also let their team know how destructive it can be.
Have open conversations about real issues
The goal is to fix an issue, not go behind people’s backs and complain. It’s better to approach the person and have an open conversation. Addressing the issue openly will help you uncover a root cause and then find a solution.
Shut down troublemakers immediately
Don’t join the conversation the troublemaker has started. Stay professional and aboveboard but explain that drama is unacceptable. Reiterate the kind of environment you are trying to create inside your company. Sometimes we all need a gentle reminder.
Let people back in the fold. Don’t hold a grudge or, worse, turn others against them.
Reward and recognize people who get it right
When you see someone handling conflict in a positive way, thank them and acknowledge them publicly. Likewise, admit it when you get it wrong. People respect leaders who are vulnerable and honest about their flaws.
“Few workplaces will ever be 100-percent drama-free,” concludes Studer. “But I believe that the vast majority of people truly want good things for their coworkers and their company. When they realize how destructive drama can be, and learn more productive ways to get their needs met, they will work hard to change for the better. It all adds up to a stronger, more positive culture and a higher-performing organization.”
Quint Studer is the author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook, How to Lead People and Places That Thrive. He works with individuals at all levels and across a variety of industries to help them become better leaders.