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No Drama! How to Create a Drama-Free Workplace

What workplace drama really looks like.

Drama, drama, drama! The woman who spends half the day polling officemates whether her boyfriend loves her. The man who has a conniption every time a client does something funky. The employees who come in complaining about each other every day, like five-year-olds on a nightmare play date. Drama comes in all shapes and sizes and it sucks hours of productivity out of a day. So how do you create a workplace devoid of drama?

It starts, like everything else, at the top. Leaders have to be drama free. If you’re the top honcho of a company or a department you can’t bring your personal stuff into the office. Talk to your spouse, your priest, your rabbi, your imam, your pastor, whoever. Not employees. And you absolutely cannot complain about one employee to another. It’s lonely at the top, that’s why there are special organizations for CEOs to come together and commiserate about their employees.

But beyond that, you have to foster a drama free environment. I once worked for a high-tech startup as director of recruiting. We had a candidate who had applied for a job and one of the engineers who had just interviewed the candidate walked out of the interview, held up the guy’s resume and made a giant “thumbs down” sign the whole room of employees could see, like Caesar. Wow. I went back to the CEO and said, “We absolutely cannot tolerate this! If the candidate saw this we’re in trouble not to mention it is rude and arrogant. Plus, anyone who disagrees with the engineer might feel uncomfortable saying so.” Conflict city!

The CEO, scrambling like all startup CEOs just to get the product out the door, told me we needed the engineer and we would just have to put up with him. Later, when the funding was pulled from the startup and the engineer went to another company, I learned that he had tried one of these moves there and been instantly shut down. He was told “We don’t tolerate that kind of rude behavior. We’re polite to everyone.” And guess what? He stopped it. Go figure.

Birds of a feather really do flock together. If the CEO is committed to a drama free environment, he or she has to make it clear that that’s what’s expected of employees. Drama queens and kings won’t be drawn to the company or fit there. So here are practical steps to ridding your company of life-sucking drama:

  • Hire grownups and tell them you expect them to act like grownups. This isn’t an age issue. There are emotionally mature 20-year-olds and there are 50-year-olds who are constantly emoting. Hire people who get that this is a workplace. Make it clear from the get-go that your office is a drama free zone. People who are prone to drama may think your office is a heartless place or doesn’t sound like any fun, but that’s just fine.  They can work somewhere else that likes soap opera behavior.
  • Keep an eye out for drama. I had one client who had to hire an extra 20 employees for the holiday season. Every year there was a slew of “My dog got sick, my grandmother died, my car broke down….” Those are the people who skate in 20 minutes late for every shift with a story. Most of them have at least eight grandparents who die in rapid succession. If you have to hire a bunch of new employees, when punctuality and showing up is important, schedule three interviews with them. If they’re late for even one, they’re out.  It works, promise.
  • Make an environment where people can—and are expected to—handle conflict constructively. Make sure your office is a safe place for people to express valid concerns, knowing retaliation won’t be tolerated. Validate their concerns and make a clear, calm decision. If they act passive aggressively or stage outbursts about the decision, let them know that behavior can lose them their jobs.
  • Offer an employee assistance program for employees who seem to spend a lot of their time working out their personal issues. And make it clear that’s the only place they’re allowed to work on them.

Remember that one bad drama seed in a company will spawn more. They’re like gremlins. You don’t feed them after midnight and don’t get them close to water. Once everyone can see that drama is okay and even part of the culture, everybody will bring their personal crazy into the office. Squash drama where it grows. Everyone will be happier.


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