Remember those colorful characters from your school days -- the class clown, the drama queen, the school gossip and the kid who distracted the teacher with off-topic questions and complaints? Guess what? They grew up and followed you to the workplace.
No longer just slightly annoying, now their antics could hurt your productivity, your team’s reputation or even your company’s bottom line.
“In a tougher economy of streamlined companies, I thought there would be less time for drama in the workplace, but the opposite seems to be true,” said Amanda Mitchell, founder of Our Corporate Life, a company that advises businesses on organizational, interpersonal and ethical issues. “In my opinion the ‘drama queen and king’ problem is getting worse.”
She sees several cultural and business-environment factors contributing to an increase in bad behavior.
“The prevalence of reality TV has made it acceptable for almost anyone to ‘act out’ in the office," Mitchell said. "There have always been ‘drama queens’ at work, but it seems that they are more accepted and that there are more of them now.”
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She points to political commentary shows where guests yell opposing views at each other with no real interaction or attempt at resolution. That kind of behavior translates poorly to business meetings.
“If people are focusing on conflict and not the business problems at hand, no wonder we’re all working longer,” she said.
Extreme behavior is disruptive, but with managers having too many reports and duties, it often gets ignored until it hits a crisis stage.
“If companies proactively took a stand to address the issue, they could avoid more crises,” Mitchell said.
Companies should aim for creating an atmosphere where people can do their best work, said Susan Reece, senior vice president of human resources at Streamlite Inc., an Atlanta business-to-residential lightweight package delivery company.
“What companies can do is establish expectations about how people will work together, to set boundaries, model standards and give people the training and tools they need to deal with behavioral challenges,” she said.
Experienced in internal and external human resources roles, Reece has seen her share of extreme behavior and its fallout. Drama queens and kings come in a variety of categories.
“ ‘Attention seekers,’ for instance, need high levels of validation to get their needs met,” she said. “Then there are the ‘catastrophizers,’ who take a negative view of everything. In their world, the sky is always falling.”
"Mis-interpreters" take selective bits of information out of context and repeat them, adding to the gossip mill. "Victims" are convinced that everything happens to them. They can’t see the big picture or accept change easily.
“Good leaders need to be clear about expectations and performance, and to realize that you can’t manage everyone in the same way,” Reece said.
For example, you can defuse the intensity of a "catastrophizer" by calling him on overblown statements and asking questions. Is it really the worst sales decision ever? What are the risks and probable outcomes? Introduce a voice of reason with facts and figures.
You might ask "mis-interpreters" to repeat back what they’ve just heard, stressing the difference between facts and personal assumptions or conclusions.
“Any organization can set barriers around what is and is not acceptable behavior,” Reece said. “Leaders set the tone.”
If the boss is exhibiting the toxic behavior, the company may have low morale and high turnover.
Company culture plays a huge part in how much drama goes on, said Emily Carlson, a regional vice president of Randstad, a staffing company.
“Sometimes managers will put up with a drama queen or king because they see value in their work. They may drive productivity or innovation,” Carlson said. “But if the behavior isn’t minimized, the company stands to lose productivity, profits, customers or an all-star who is tired of dealing with it.”
So how’s a worker to cope?
“You can try focusing on your contribution to the situation and change your approach to the person,” Carlson said.
Are you enabling someone by listening to gossip or allowing them to waste your time with "ain’t it awful" conversations? Bring the conversation back to business or try establishing a rapport to understand someone’s motivation better. You might be able to help by suggesting resources through employee assistance programs.
“Remember that stress is going up in the workplace and everyone reacts to stress differently,” Reece said.
She recommends “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work or in Life, One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott, as a tool for learning how to interact more effectively.
“If you talk with someone about their behavior, keep it professional and free of emotion,” Carlson said. “Talk face to face. Don’t use e-mail where things can get lost in translation, and do not take your issue to Facebook, Twitter or Linked-In. Blogging about co-workers is damaging and could be [legally] classified as bullying.”
Limit your time with the person.
“If someone has a legitimate reason to vent, tell her you’ll listen for 10 minutes but then you have work to do,” Reece said.
Don’t play into the drama, Mitchell advises.
“Actors need an audience. If they don’t have an audience, they don’t have a game," she said. "Pull the conversation back to work or walk away and focus on your own deliverables.”
Ask your boss or a human resources manager for help, but do it in a positive way, Reece said.
“Don’t just complain," she said. "Explain the challenges and ask for help in finding solutions.”