Learning & Development

How Workplace Drama Can Impact a Company’s Bottom Line: How to Avoid It

We know it when we see it—the drama that insidiously creeps into our workplaces, chipping away at morale, well-being, productivity and, yes, the bottom line. This drama can include both gossiping about co-workers and undermining institutional change. In other words, workplace drama is everything that commandeers mental energy, directing it away from the organization’s mission and into the quicksand of persistent complaints, uninformed assumptions and unproductive behaviors. 

But what does this look like in practice? Consider this scenario involving a leadership transition within a large division. The new leader took her time to learn from longtime employees, who understand how things are done, while at the same time slowly introducing change to streamline processes, reduce stress on overworked employees and promote efficiency. There was a learning curve, but everyone was on board, except one person. The holdout had been in the division for many years and controlled a particularly critical facet of its work. He was the only one who fully understood every aspect of the business. Because of that, he singlehandedly slowed down the process of promoting change, refusing to participate in meetings or engage in constructive conversations. He did, however, quietly convey his resistance, confiding in a select few that he would wait it out, tacitly wreaking havoc until the new leader left. His stonewalling had worked before; another newly arrived leader became disillusioned and frustrated and eventually left. This employee was convinced his campaign would be successful again. 

The leader could have reacted impulsively, but she recognized that the campaign and ensuing drama demanded a thoughtful and deliberate response. Why? Because leaders are under a spotlight; everyone will be paying close attention to the tone that is set and the actions that are taken. Leaders contending with workplace drama understand that their responses must be calibrated because the stakes are high. 

Workplace Drama Can Impact Productivity and Retention

What exactly are the costs of workplace drams? The 2022 “Conflict at Work” research from the Myers-Briggs Company highlights the potential for lost revenue, with respondents reporting that they spent an average of 4.34 hours per week dealing with conflict at work. This startling statistic definitively answers the question of whether workplace drama impacts the bottom line. Drama leads to conflict, and for those employees on the top end of the conflict scale, over 200 working hours per year are diverted from furthering an organization’s mission to navigating workplace tension. 

This time has a human cost, impacting morale, trust in colleagues and leadership, and engagement. It also has a monetary cost because it reduces individual and team productivity. Two hundred working hours is five weeks of work. What could one employee accomplish in five weeks? What about 10 employees?

While some employees devote time to negotiating work drama, others disengage, withdraw or actively look for other opportunities. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report highlights the crisis organizations are facing regarding employee engagement, reporting that 52% of employees are “quiet quitting (not engaged)” and 17% are “loud quitting (actively and vocally disengaged).” What’s worse, the report also indicates that over 50% of employees are considering or actively seeking new employment.

Taken together, the lost productivity in the short term and the potential for escalating disengagement and, eventually, employee turnover underscores that creating a culture that incentivizes communication, collaboration and conflict resolution is imperative. But how do we do so?

Defuse Drama Through Relationship-Building and Institutional Supports

Dealing with workplace drama can be complex and challenging. There are several steps you can take to manage the situation and minimize its impact on your team.

First, set an example. Avoid engaging in gossip and spreading rumors. Openly take responsibility for missteps and share the lessons you learned. Drama grows in the darkness. Second, it’s important to create a culture of open communication and trust within your team. Provide opportunities for team building and collaboration to help strengthen relationships and reduce the likelihood of future strife. Third, invest in structural approaches that decrease dramatic interactions. You can do this by establishing guidelines for behavior by setting policies regarding respectful communication and conflict resolution. You can also prioritize the well-being of your team members by providing institutional support and resources for those who may be struggling.

Lastly, approach opportunities for intervention with caution. It can be attractive to you and your management team to address these matters yourself. It’s a common misconception that all you need to do is listen, understand the problem and guide people to a constructive resolution. But lasting conflict resolution requires getting to the root causes, understanding everyone’s needs and addressing their interests. If your managers want to get involved, get them the training they need to do it confidently and effectively. In tough cases, consider bringing in a professional mediator to facilitate the conversation and help everyone come to a mutual understanding about how they want to move forward.

Remember that new leaders investing time to learn from seasoned employees before implementing new processes? And how one employee dug in his heels to sabotage change and foment discord? She knew a thoughtful and calibrated deliberate response was necessary. 

What if she provided opportunities for team building to help strengthen relationships? What if she established guidelines for behavior by setting policies around respectful communication? What if she brought in a mediator to help facilitate a private conversation with him? These interventions run the spectrum and can be stacked to improve the likelihood of success.

Positive and Productive Workplace Culture

Workplace drama is a big tent filled with troubled actors. Gossip can hurt team morale, stall productivity and poison the work environment. By addressing drama methodically, constructively and with clear institutional expectations, you can help maintain a positive workplace culture that incentivizes communication, collaboration and openness and reflects inspired leadership.

Genesis Fisher is a lead facilitator and trainer with JAMS Pathways. An experienced certified mediator, Genesis is adept at facilitating positive change. Her training and workshops have helped over 2,000 people in six countries communicate better in the workplace. A sought-after teacher, writer and speaker, she serves on the Advisory Committee for the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution, which provides conflict resolution services for over 70 New York City agencies.

Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher is a lead facilitator and trainer with JAMS Pathways. Combining an academic foundation in dispute resolution with more than 24 years of applied experience, Deirdre brings a broad skill set to resolving both two-party and multiparty disputes. She has written extensively on the power of dispute resolution processes to manage conflict and transform relationships, and on the need for processes that reflect the needs of stakeholders in a system.

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