Workplace Drama: How to Define It and Identify It

The phrase "workplace drama" gets various responses:

  • I work with an office full of women, and they have catfights.
  • You should see my boss. He’s impossible.
  • My daughter is a drama queen.

The phrase that amuses me the most is, "I don’t do drama." That’s because those who say they "don’t do it" are often the ones who have the most of it.

If you experience any type of power struggle, insubordination, office gossip, petty arguments, you have drama. If your mind is preoccupied with the mistake you made last week, the dreaded conversation you need to have with an employee, the secret you keep from your own boss, you have drama. The point is that all of us experience some sort of drama, either personally or professionally.

Because most of us have a preconceived notion of what drama is, we are unable to identify it when it’s small enough to take care of. If unattended, personal drama turns into high blood pressure, a stroke, or heart attack. Workplace drama turns into absenteeism, turnover, or lawsuits. Ignoring, avoiding, or denying drama only increases its power.

Take for example, the star performer who is also the workplace bully. Because of her great performance in generating sales, nothing is done to correct her disruptive behavior. Fast forward 10 years, and the company must defend a workplace harassment lawsuit and account for high turnover.

Drama manifests in various ways in the workplace: insubordination, backstabbing, petty arguments, power struggles, and all manner of employee relationship issues. But what do you do to eliminate it when there are so many variations?

Define Drama

To make drama easy to identify, I came up with a definition and a process to help leaders identify, dissect, and eliminate drama at the core.

The definition: Drama is any obstacle to your peace or prosperity. The obstacle can be the voice in your head, the employee causing you grief, or the economic situation that has everyone in a state of panic about job security.
There’s a visual and language I use in my workshops that I want to introduce now. You (or you and your team) are in a rowboat, rowing to an island. Between you and your island is the big shark. Drama is the shark, the obstacle that threatens your success.

To help you identify and dissect drama, apply this three-part process by looking for the three common components: A lack of clarity, a relationship issue, and a state of resistance.

Before moving forward, let me also explain that when I use the word "relationship," it does not always mean relationship with other people. A relationship only exists because of how you think about someone or something. You have a relationship with time, a relationship with money, with authority, with leadership, and so on. Relationships exist first on the level of our thinking, as there would be no relationship with anyone or anything if you did not first think about the person, place, or thing.

The Three Components of Drama

Now let’s look at how all three components of drama—lack of clarity, relationship, and resistance—show up in the following example.

You scheduled an employee meeting only to get derailed by the drama queen, who is the spokesperson for the dissatisfaction regarding the recent firing of a colleague. The lack of clarity is failure to set expectations and take charge of the meeting. The one with clarity navigates the ship, and apparently, the drama queen is clearer about getting her voice heard.

The relationship issue may be your own relationship with presenting in public, or you may have a personal relationship issue with the drama queen causing the ruckus.

It’s obvious what kind of resistance is coming from the drama queen. She resists your authority and is willing to disrupt the meeting to display her resistance to your authority.
However, as leaders, we often don’t understand our own resistance. For example, perhaps you resist having a difficult conversation with her before the meeting. Perhaps you resist enforcing your expectations if someone disrupts the meeting because you don’t quite have the soft skills to do so in a confident and neutral manner.
If you want to unravel drama at the core, you have to first become aware of any obstacle that threatens your peace of mind, or anything that stands in the way of your corporate goals and mission. The most difficult part of this is to learn how to become emotionally aware. When you feel irritated, anger, frustration, or dread, that is your signal that drama is brewing. Pay attention to your level of "discontent." The more aware you are, the easier it is to identify the potential drama brewing.

The second thing you want to do is ask these questions:

  • Where is there a lack of clarity?
  • What is the relationship issue?
  • Where is the resistance, and who is resisting what?

Even if you can only answer one question, you start the unraveling process. Once you gain clarity, you can change any situation, no matter how difficult the drama.

—Marlene Chism is a professional speaker, trainer, and the author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011). For more information visit

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