When you think about drama at your company, chances are a certain employee or two comes to mind — they’re always griping or stirring things up; anything but working. They might even be taking advantage of your open-door policy to visit you with a laundry list of concerns they have. You’ve tried to address their behavior, but haven’t really gotten anywhere. Now what?
The problem is you’re focusing on the wrong source. “The main reason there’s so much ego behavior is that the traditional leadership measures are fueling the drama, not diffusing it. Leaders do everything they can to engage people instead of coaching them beyond this ego behavior,” says Cy Wakeman, a speaker and author who has studied the effects of drama in the workplace for years. She recently released a book on the subject, “No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results.”
Here’s how to fight the drama.
The things Wakeman describes as “ego behaviors” include venting, tattling, judging and gossiping — and her research has found that these behaviors make up about a third of the hours taken up by drama in the day. “It’s emotional waste,” she says. “Most businesses are really tough on waste, and the way to do that with ego behaviors is establishing a good mental process that results in healthy thinking.”
Leaders often lead people into bad mental processes, Wakeman says, such as by sympathizing instead of empathizing. If an employee complains about “corporate’s new strategy that came down with no input,” the reaction is often “I know, that’s just the environment we work in; it’s terrible.” Instead, Wakeman says, the manager can empathize by giving the employee tools to live skillfully in the reality they have: “I’m glad you’re clear on the new strategy, so let’s focus now on how we can execute it.”
Leaders often feel like they need to appease employees by fixing problems or improving the circumstances around their work, Wakeman says. But doing so can create a mentality of entitlement or coddling, when employees should feel comfortable solving their own problems, she says.
Wakeman says leaders should instead encourage self-reflection among employees to boost personal curiosity and look for solutions. If someone comes to you to vent, she recommends redirecting the employee with a question for self-reflection: “If you could be great, right now, what would that look like?” The question helps nudge the employee away from complaining about circumstances and toward the impact they could make.
If you want your workplace to be more innovative, creative and collaborative, you have to reduce the drama, Wakeman says. “We know people already have those traits — the greatness is already there, but you have to teach people to be better.” Holding people accountable for self-reflection and action will help your organization shed the drama and attract people who are focused on results rather than ego behaviors, she says.
Workplaces have gone too far in efforts to engage employees, Wakeman says. “People have worked on engagement for 30 years and it’s still flat,” she says. Instead, build a culture of accountability. “People tell me there’s a shortage of talent, but I think there’s a shortage of places for high-accountability people to work, without drama. Drama-free workplaces are the next competitive advantage.”