We’ve all experienced the meeting that turns into a complaint session, the coworker who turns everything in late or that nagging feeling that a team member doesn’t have your back. These workplace scenarios can disrupt your day, sap creative juices and generate growing tensions. But why are they so common?
Wakeman is a researcher, author and leadership consultant who literally wrote the book on drama in the workplace. Now she’s on a mission to help people become happier, more creative and more productive in all facets of their lives. We spoke with Wakeman to learn how to avoid drama at work and build more creative and collaborative teams.
More accountability, less drama
According to Wakeman, workplace drama is like “emotional waste”: energy that's diverted toward negativity and away from positive working environments and results.
We can, and should, learn to control this energy, she says — but its sources aren’t always obvious. In fact, drama is often quiet and hard to spot.
“[Drama includes] mental processes that are unproductive, disruptive behavior — anything that takes energy away from what we're trying to create,” Wakeman explains. “It's about whether you help or hinder the team [and] ... whether you add clarity or chaos.”
Wakeman’s best advice for ditching the office drama: “Stop believing everything you think.” Drama originates from the stories we tell ourselves about the world around us — stories that aren’t fully accurate. To combat it, we must question what we perceive is happening and look closer at the facts.
Here’s an example of what Wakeman calls “quiet” workplace drama: An employee goes to a meeting and doesn’t speak up but then feels slighted because their idea was not included. This person feels left out, so that becomes their narrative. The drama lies in the disconnect between what they think happened versus what actually did: They didn’t share, so nobody knew.
Wakeman believes most office drama comes from either too much ego or too little accountability. Taking things personally without asking questions, in our example above, is a sign of ego. An example of poor accountability might be when a worker claims they’re willing to do their job but then only does so under certain conditions or for certain people. In both cases, the person’s failure to reflect on their own role in the drama helps perpetuate it.
In Wakeman’s framework, “To come fit for work, you have to be managing your own drama.”
But what if you’re part of the workplace drama and you don’t even realize it? Not only is this likely, it’s virtually guaranteed: Wakeman says that the average worker wastes 2.5 hours each day on office drama. While it often gets normalized as “office politics” or attributed to one or two repeat offenders, this isn’t the whole story.
“I think people are aware of other people's drama, but not self-aware,” Wakeman says.
Luckily, there are steps managers can take to help workers see the light. According to Wakeman, encouraging self-reflection is a powerful tool, enabling workers to consider their own role.
Wakeman refers to this as “editing your story.” Managers can facilitate this behavior by encouraging employees who are faced with a challenge to take a “time out” before making assumptions. Remind them to stick to the facts, not to operate on feelings or suspicions. They can’t develop a meaningful solution until they know the real problem.
Of course, managers also have a role to play in holding workers accountable. Wakeman gives an example of a common scenario: A manager is frustrated with an employee who is chronically late with deliverables. Wakeman would dig into this by asking how the manager responds to the employee. If the answer is always, “I understand,” this only reinforces the employee’s behavior.
Wakeman advises managers in this situation to be direct, to emphasize the importance of the work and to highlight the impact of the delay on the rest of the team. Seeing the consequences of their actions helps inspire employees to get work done on time.
“You can’t make them do anything, but you can stop enabling them,” Wakeman adds.
Use negative brainstorming
Negative brainstorming is an approach that allows people to express their worries and fears out in the open but in a productive way. Wakeman leads participants in a discussion where they share their concerns about a project or challenge. Then she asks them to quantify the risks: Are they real? If so, how likely or serious are they? Finally, she helps the group strategize ways to mitigate or avoid the real risks.
Wakeman says negative brainstorming helps “drive good conversation forward” by pushing beyond the seeds of drama and into real change. Much like self-reflection, this approach helps people stick to the facts and avoid speculation. Better yet, it pushes them to anticipate solutions rather than focusing on problems.
Negative brainstorming is an example of how managers can provide a “safe space” for employees that is still “facilitated and disciplined.” Wakeman supports these types of structured safe spaces over standing open-door policies — which, she argues, can turn into an open format for venting and speculation and turn managers into a sounding board for negativity.
Reduce workplace drama to open a world of possibilities
Ditching office drama is an ongoing process, and “you'll never find a perfect organization or a perfect team,” Wakeman says. A manager’s job is to give employees the tools and guidance to succeed within their present circumstances.
“Modern leaders no longer manage people, they manage energy,” says Wakeman, and office drama is an energy drain. Managers’ goal is to reduce negative energy, shifting the focus away from why things aren’t working and toward positive energy and creative solutions.
Ego and a lack of accountability feed workplace drama, but Wakeman’s strategies can teach you how to avoid drama at work. By facilitating self-reflection, encouraging negative brainstorming and providing safe spaces for positivity, managers can help teams focus their energy where it belongs: on their work, so performance, productivity and creativity can flourish.