Workplace Drama: Why Behavioral Change Does Not Work

Many communication experts focus on changing behavior.  Many workshops promise techniques on how to say something a certain way in order to manipulate someone else into doing what you want them to do.

I take an opposite approach. I say that instead of working on your response (or your behavior) instead, change your experience. Once your experience changes, it’s very easy to learn the techniques and communication skills that foster teamwork and collaboration.

Your responses are a reaction to your experience. So rather than using willpower to try to behave in a way that is not natural, what if your natural behavior (no matter what the circumstance) represented the best of who you are?

Distinguishing Response from Experience

Let’s say you’re in traffic and a slowpoke makes you miss the green light. You are so frustrated that you start sweating and swearing. Sweating is your internal response, swearing is your outer response.

Why did you have the reaction you just had? Was it because of the situation? Was it because you are undisciplined? No, it was because of your level of understanding. There are three levels of understanding.

Level 1: It’s About The Situation

This is a reactive pattern where you believe that any reaction you have is because of someone else, or some situation. You believe that the power is outside of you. You become the victim of circumstances: If the other person would just step up to the plate, drive correctly, be more considerate, then you wouldn’t have to resort to sweating and swearing.

Level 2: It’s About The Behavior

This is where you decide that even though you feel the same way, i.e. they should drive better and they are an idiot, you will instead learn how to be more disciplined. This is the "change your response methodology." Initially you are proud of your willpower, but it’s inconsistent. You keep reverting back to old patterns. You can’t control your body’s natural reaction (sweating) and instead of swearing, you simply feel resentful even if it doesn’t show outwardly. It takes a lot of focus to behave one way when you feel another way. Trying to change your behavior only works for so long. You end up feeling bad about your lack of self-discipline.  You wish you were a better person.

Level 3: It’s About The Experience

The situation remains the same, and yet your experience is totally different. You just take a deep breath. You have compassion. Your internal dialogue is calm. You aren’t even sweating this time. When you experience something differently it is because your understanding has shifted. 

Let’s explore…

The truth is, the only reason you experienced anger and frustration is because you believe that being late is going to cause you some drama. You also have a belief about the person you are watching. You make up a story in your mind about the other person being an idiot, insensitive or clueless.

The truth is, your understanding is limited.  You see only what is observable on the outside. You don’t know the facts around the situation.

New Understanding Creates a New Experience

Suppose you found out that the person was trying to drive slowly because they had a passenger who was recovering from a serious back surgery or had been badly burned. Isn’t it true that because of this new understanding your “experience” would change, yet the situation would not have changed?

The situation was the same, but your experience of it changed because of new information or because of your own mindset.

That is what I mean about learning how to become even responsible for your own experience rather than just being responsible for your “response.” 

I discovered this one day when I lost a pair of glasses that had cost me a lot of money. My experience was extreme frustration and anxiety that I would have to spend more money to get a new pair. I asked myself, “What would I have to believe in order to be experiencing these emotions?” My answer was simple. It was a fear of not having enough money and a judgment on myself for not paying attention. The experience was then separate from the fact that I lost my glasses.

Knowing your feelings won’t change the facts, but knowing the facts can change your feelings, and when you change your feelings you change your experience. 

How do your beliefs about your workplace and the people in it influence your behavior?  What about the way you see your boss? Your employees? What if you could develop a deeper understanding by looking at the facts? In my book I make the distinction of “The Drama” versus “Your Drama.” It’s never about the circumstances but always about how we experience it, and our experiences come from the way we interpret a situation and our beliefs about the other person, as well as our beliefs about ourselves and our ability to handle it. 

Points to Ponder

  • As a leader, how can you challenge assumptions and encourage fact finding?

  • Name a time when changing your response was ineffective.

  • What is an assumption you currently have about a difficult situation?

  • What beliefs are keeping you from living from your highest truth?

  • What kind of workplace drama is due to a lack of understanding?

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

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