Drama Is Killing Us

Adapted from “Conflict without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability” by Dr. Nate Regier.

Everyone loves stage drama that entertains and excites. Unexpected plot twists, heroes and heroines, bad guys and good guys. Alternatively, there’s interpersonal drama that hollows out your stomach, makes you want to scream, and sucks the life out of you. Easy to sense and difficult to get a handle on, interpersonal drama is one of the most costly drains on relationships and productivity.

A Day in the Life of Drama Corp

Welcome to Drama Corp. It was Wednesday morning and the operations team assembled for its obligatory staff meeting. Fred, the Chief of Operations, was frustrated and critical of Sally’s performance, saying things like, “You obviously don’t care enough about your work.”

Sally looked down and said nothing, even though she had nothing to do with what had happened. Others in the room went silent and kept their heads down. Jim whispered to Sally that after the meeting he’d help her learn how to get on Fred’s good side. For the rest of the meeting, everyone nodded in apparent agreement with whatever Fred said, and kept their own ideas to themselves.

After the meeting, the drama continued and deepened. Brett found Sally in the break room and reassured her it wasn’t her fault. “Fred is just a jerk who has no idea what he’s talking about,” he scoffed. Jim stopped by Sally’s desk and reminded her that he was on Fred’s good side and had some advice for her. Meanwhile, Fred popped into Greta’s office asking if she had noticed Sally’s poor work, as well. For the rest of the day, everyone from that meeting was preoccupied with what had happened, and the circle of drama grew. Lunch and break room interactions were tense.

Side conversations and private text messages filled the office. Fred spent more than an hour reviewing the employee conduct manual to see if he could write Sally up for insubordination. He just knew she was up to something bad. He wrote an e-mail to HR asking for guidelines on documenting behavior. Sally felt angry all day, and was short-tempered with her teammates.

Throughout the day she texted with several friends, including a few who didn’t even work at Drama Corp, about what a jerk Fred was and how she couldn’t wait to get out of there. One friend offered to check for openings at his company. Jim withdrew to his office and began plotting how to get more attention for his own projects in the next meeting.

What Is Drama?

It’s easy to identify the behaviors of drama: gossip, secrets, triangulating, retaliating, blaming, avoiding, turf wars, blowing up…the list goes on. A working definition that helps us get a handle on the concept is a bit more difficult. Here’s what we’ve come up with:

Drama is what happens when people struggle against themselves or each other, with or without awareness, to feel justified about their negative behavior.

Drama is about struggling against. There’s always a winner and a loser. The fight may be internal, between people, or involving companies and nations. Relationships in drama are usually adversarial.

Drama happens with or without awareness. How each person behaves in drama is predictable and habitual. It’s highly predicted by personality and amazingly consistent from day to day. Because we tend to learn these behaviors in childhood, we’ve likely been practicing them our whole lives. Feeling justified is the modus operandi in drama.

If I’m in drama, my ultimate motivation is to be able to say, “See, I was right!” How much time do you spend in your head, or with your allies, rationalizing the negative things you do? Think back to a time when you made a poor decision or treated someone badly but didn’t want to take responsibility for your behavior. What did you do instead? I bet you spent a lot of energy trying to justify it. It’s the only way we can sleep at night!

This is why drama has such a negative impact on productivity: People are spending enormous amounts of energy trying to feel justified. Drama is all about negative attention behavior. Humans need attention. Period. If we don’t get it in positive ways, we’ll get it negatively. It’s the next best thing, and far better than being ignored.

Adapted from Conflict without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability” by Dr. Nate Regier.

Dr. Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. A former practicing psychologist, Regier is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, teambuilding, and change management. An international adviser, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model certifying master trainer, and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama training and coaching. Regier has published two books: “Beyond Drama” and his latest work, “Conflict Without Casualties.”



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