Dealing with drama at the office is one of the worst parts of being an executive. It has the potential to suck the life out of you, and to kill your motivation, and for many of my clients, it leaves them wondering: “Why did I choose this career?” The best example of this is one my clients – we will call him John.

John is the CEO of a manufacturing company. He hates drama. You can literally see his skin crawl when he talks about it. His face scrunches up. His shoulders tighten and he winces when he talks about the latest drama of the day. “I just don’t get it. What is everyone’s problem? Why can’t they just do their work? It’s like dealing with children.” Then his body crumbles, and he looks defeated. Exhausted. Helpless. Weighed down.

We can all relate to John. We have all experience political situations that we prefer to forget. Those times when we are caught in a pinnacle of workplace drama – one person is upset, gossip in the organization is rampant, and we feel like a ping pong ball as we bounce around trying to make sense of the issue. So, what is an executive to do? If you are caught in drama, how do you get out of this dark hole?

First off, let’s talk about what not to do. John illustrates this well. Every time John experiences drama, he avoids it. He literally shuts down. His face goes blank. He starts to squirm, and he typically nods in a placating way. Not surprisingly, the placating nod does the most harm. When he nods, people feel understood, but when John he takes no action, they get mad. End result? They attack John. They whisper in the lunch room: “What’s his problem? He doesn’t do anything!” Some people get angry. The irony is that now people have a new issue to bond around – John’s deadbeat behaviour. It is not surprising that John has 45% turnover in his company. Not good.

So, what was John doing wrong? Well, a couple of things. For starters, he distanced himself from the drama to the point that he escalated the problem. By distancing himself, John became part of the drama problem because nothing got dealt with in a constructive way.

One of the basic principles of dealing with drama at work is to recognize your emotional patterns when you encounter drama and to recognize how your typical reaction contributes to the problem. Does it escalate it? Enable others? Or diffuse it? If John was able to self-manage his reactions better, he could have taken a different tactic when employees came to him about issues. He could have expressed confidence in their ability to handle the situation constructively, facilitated the development of a behavioural code of conduct, or brought in a skilled third party to help them. Instead, he was so busy managing his own anxiety, nothing got done.

Second, he created a “drama triangle” – a seductive high energy interaction which includes blaming, defensive behaviour, and rescuing. Drama triangles are recognizably consistent no matter what the details of the situation and they include the following roles:

The Persecutor: “This company is such a hole.” “I can’t believe the quality of management.” “It is all John’s fault.” “That VP, Sales is a real idiot.” All the energy goes into finding someone or something to blame for all the company’s problems. Blaming someone else makes people feel better and, of course, it means other people have to change, not you.

The Victim: “I tried my best.” “I couldn’t get through.” “They did this to me.” This is the victim in the drama. They use a helpless tone, and don’t take personal responsibility. They may look for someone to rescue them, or to blame, in order to get rid of their negative feelings.

The Rescuer: Rescuers need a victim to feel good. They are “do-gooders” without boundaries. “Let me fix this. Let me take this on.” “I can save the day.” “Let me rescue this poor person who was hard done by.” Rescuers may try to help people without being asked, or they take a twisted pleasure in getting their nose into other people’s drama.

Most people learn the power of being a persecutor, victim, or rescuer as children and they repeat this behaviour in their career without being aware of it. As an executive, if you engage in this behaviour or react to it, you will escalate the drama and there will be a price to pay – people won’t want to work for you, you will feel drained at work, and you will create a negative culture.

To break the cycle, you need to set the tone of Dramacool  personal accountability, respect, choice, and principled behaviour in your organization and work culture. Here are some specific tactics:

– Watch out for drama triangles and start to pay attention to who is playing the role of persecutor, victim, and rescuer. Be mindful of which role you tend to play.

-Consider the payoff in your organization for taking on a specific role. Are people “bonding” with each other when they have someone else to blame? Are they avoiding dealing with the complexity of issues by blaming one person? Do the “victims” get pity? Do people feel sorry for them, or stay clear, thereby giving them power? Are you creating dependence in your organization by rescuing people? Self-righteousness?

– Explore what is being avoided by participating in the drama. Are there some deeper issues in the organization that need to be addressed? If so, what are they?

– Notice your reactions to drama. What are you doing? Not doing? What are you taking responsibility for? Have you agreed to do more than you want to?

– When you get triggered by a drama, focus on grounding yourself. Do not deal with the drama until you can get involved without escalating your own emotional reaction.

– Facilitate a healthy outcome by focusing on principles – respect, honesty, and making agreements that work. Recognize that the more intense the drama, the harder it will be to get people to come up with a healthy outcome.