How can you keep yourself from getting hooked by employee drama — especially if you’re a hero type who naturally likes riding to the rescue? It’s particularly difficult if dealing with an urgent or incendiary employee situation typically feels like a higher priority than much of your “regular” work — and if its urgency creates a sense of vitality and engagement for everyone involved.
What would happen if you simply stop joining in and playing your part in the show? Will you be hurting the business if you don’t respond to provocative statements or take immediate and publicly visible action? Or will you be perceived as weak, and only a subsidiary actor?
Work as Theater
Some employees stage dramas for their management because they need personal attention, they think it’s the only way to get the leader to recognize the importance of a situation, or they’re bored and want to make work and the workplace more exciting.
Sometimes the drama is a reaction from people who don’t believe that their management will take them seriously unless they play out every bit of interaction and every last related problem with great fervor.
In any of these cases, it’s useful to “go to the balcony” and view the scene with a bit of distance and detachment. Don’t just look at how fervent and intense the individual is; instead, look at where and how the individual fits into the entire setting.
Directing the Action
Before taking action, revisit the context. Review the goals you have for your department overall, and how individual employees fit into the picture. Then you’re ready to direct the production.
After you state what you want to accomplish as the leader, you’ll have a context for coaching or counseling your dramatic headliners. Given the overall needs of the department, you can specify the parts you need them to play and your expectations for their performance.
Now the action and dialogue are no longer just about their neuroses, habits, and shtick. Rather than focusing on one individual’s personal needs or inadequacies, you’ll be working to develop the department and make the entire team successful.
Managing the Cast of Characters
In a workplace drama, the main character could be a victim, martyr, aggressor, or occasional thrower of grenades: They all draw focus and energy away from the significant needs of the business to their own. In addition, these employees are often rude or patronizing to other people, who can also get sucked into being cast members.
If you’re too tolerant or patient when employees act out their problems or claims in subjective, overly emotional, or manipulative ways, it can look like you are taking their side and “empowering” them (in the bad sense) instead of just being your kind and non-judgmental self. Remember, these are responsible working adults, and sometimes judgments, even negative ones, communicated forcefully, are appropriate and necessary.
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll consider a few examples of workplace drama. In general though, it’s crucial not to put too much spotlight on particular individuals and swoop in to fix them or their roles. Individual employees have to be supported, in effect, to fix themselves and to accomplish the responsibilities and goals you set for them. Or they can choose an alternative ending and decide that the job or situation is not for them and make their exit, with help as needed.
Onward and upward,