Many people love drama, even though some may not want to admit that fact. Drama is why some viewers are glued to reality TV, social media or celebrity gossip stories. Even though drama can be entertaining in the media, it can be disastrous if it exists in the workplace. Yet, workplace drama is so common that several blog readers asked me to address this issue here.
Let me first define what I mean by workplace drama. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (n.d.), one definition of drama is “a state, situation or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces.” In the workplace, though often intense, such conflict does not need to be overt – in fact, it can simmer under the surface of interactions so much so that it might not be evident to organizational newcomers or outsiders not privy to the drama (Morrill, Zald, & Rao, 2003). Workplaces that have a lot of drama are often marked by what have been labeled by researchers as “deviant” behaviors (Robinson & Bennett, 1995) among its employees, not limited to but including: spreading rumors and gossiping behind others’ backs; sabotaging coworkers’ efforts; lying or communicating in a cynical manner; and exaggerating stories to suit one’s own selfish interests. Obviously, these actions are detrimental to workplaces because they get in the way of accomplishing organizational goals.
Given that drama at work is bad and that it is prevalent in many organizations, it would be useful to consider where it comes from. Many might suggest that it comes from a few “bad apples” at work that simply get pleasure from such activities. While that may be true to an extent (for a good discussion on how to deal with such individuals, check out the book by Harden and Omdahl  on problematic workplace relationships), such behaviors are only allowed to continue in an organization if they are supported by the assumptions of its culture (Schein, 2010). As my co-authors and I note in our study of intergenerational conflict (Urick, Hollensbe, Masterson, & Lyons, 2017), tension occurs if it is supported within the context of an organization. In other words, some organizations allow drama to occur to their detriment because it’s engrained in a company’s collective mindset.
So, what can you do if you find yourself employed by an organization in which drama runs rampant? Some ideas are below:
- Be politically savvy. Some people may have a negative reaction to this suggestion. Others may suggest that they refuse to play workplace politics. However, according to one of my favorite books (about workplace politics by DeLuca ), if you refuse to be a part of workplace politics you are at a detriment because they exist, to some extent, in all organizations. Playing politics does not necessarily mean being deviant. Instead, being politically savvy can mean being aware of drama and using others’ behaviors (i.e. those who are creating the drama) to help pursue goals for a greater common good. Examples of this could be to emphasize stories that would focus on common goals, influencing others who thrive on drama informally before formal meetings to get them on your side for initiatives that will benefit the company, or helping others achieve their own personal agendas if they also help accomplish the goals of others and the organization. By being aware of workplace politics, you could rise above the drama you might experience.
- Call it out. I’m lucky to work in a setting that doesn’t have much workplace drama but, if I did, a magnet I have on my filing cabinet might be useful. It says “Drama” but is crossed out with a red slash implying that drama won’t be tolerated. In essence, this magnet is drawing attention to drama. In some organizations, such an artifact could call out that drama exists and get others to rethink their assumptions if they are acting in a drama-fueled manner. Of course, a magnet is just one way to call out such behavior. Other ways might be explicitly mentioning the existence of drama in meetings or talking one-on-one with those engaging in drama about their behavior. This might not work for all organizations or in all roles but, in many instances, making others aware that drama exists and can be harmful might go a long way to their questioning their own negative behaviors.
- Model the way. In the classic book “The Leadership Challenge” (Kouzes & Posner, 2006), one strategy to influence others is to “model the way.” This simply means to mentor others and act in a way that you hope they will act. As a leader, it’s important to engage in these types of activities so that others in the organization will know appropriate behaviors. That said, anyone in organizations can act in a way that fits their own personal values and that they hope others will mimic. If you begin to act in a way that is not drama-filled, hopefully these behaviors will be contagious to others so that they will begin to follow suit thus changing the workplace culture.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Have you experienced workplace drama? What caused it? How did you handle it and were your actions effective? I’d like to hear from you! Write me in the comments below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with me on social media (www.facebook.com/urickmj and www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-urick/a3/775/5b/).
P.S. If you’re interested in reading more about my research on intergenerational conflict, the Oxford University Press just published this blog: https://blog.oup.com/2017/05/intergenerational-conflict-at-work. Hope you will check it out!
Michael J. Urick, MBA, MS, PhD
DeLuca, J. R. (1999). Political savvy: Systematic approaches to leadership behind the scenes. EBG Publishing: Berwyn, PA.
Harden, J. M. & Omdahl, B., eds. (2006). Problematic relationships in the workplace. Peter Lang Publishing: New York, NY.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2006). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons: New York, NY.
Merriam-Webster dictionary. n.d. Drama. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drama. Accessed May 3, 2017.
Morrill, C., Zald, M. N., & Rao, H. (2003). Covert political conflict in organizations: Challenges from below. Annual review of sociology, 29, 391-415.
Robinson, S. L., & Bennett, R. J. (1995). A typology of deviant workplace behaviors: A multidimensional scaling study. Academy of management journal, 38, 555-572.
Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership. 4th edition. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Urick, M. J., Hollensbe, E. C., Masterson, S. S., & Lyons, S. T. (2017). Understanding and managing intergenerational conflict: An examination of influences and strategies. Work, aging and retirement, 3, 166-185