We know that drama can lead to stress, and stress leads to increased blood pressure, lower ability to focus, lower productivity over time and higher likelihood of burnout. Leading a high drama team is a sure fire way to send your stress levels (and possibly sanity) through the roof. We like to think that we leave the drama behind in grade school (or at home with our mama’s),  but in reality, some workplaces and teams are wracked with drama, leaving leaders wondering how to rise above the b.s. and refocus their teams on the work at hand.

Four Letter was recently hired by a client to uncover the driving forces behind his dramatic team and set them on the right course. Tim, a VP at a national company, shared his visions of a highly collaborative, collegial team, one that other teams looked to as a model. But Tim was at the helm of a group that constantly gossiped, jockeyed for position, and looked to Tim to play referee. By the time Tim came to us he was tired, frustrated and losing his cool.

During our assessment, we saw a low trust, low accountability culture. We wasted no time in addressing the issues at the core of the heartburn.

1. Team members were being told to act, but were regularly being disempowered by Tim (the very person asking the team to take more ownership).

During our interviews, we heard the team asking for more ownership, and wanting support not just from Tim, but from each other. We began by asking Tim to reflect on his role and spoke about the cost of his hardline results orientation. His propensity to step in and “fix the problem” was undermining his teams sense of ownership and their long term ability to independently handle their work. Tim acknowledged that he had lost focus on his responsibility to develop his team and recommitted to his goal of focusing on strategy leadership- not the day-to-day minutiae.  

We helped Tim understand his role as the leader. Now, when his team comes to him with questions or concerns, instead of giving the answer or addressing the concern himself, he coaches his team on how to approach the situation in the future. [Side note: this takes time. Time you may not feel you have. But if you are leading a high drama team, you are spending the time on the “back end”. So make the proactive investment and you’ll see time-savings in the future.]

Tim also needed to look at what he was getting out of all of the drama. Tim was able to identify that, by engaging in the drama, he got to feel needed. He also got to ensure no one outshone him. In addition to reframing his role, he needed to (re)frame what success meant in that role.

Lastly, we encouraged Tim to reflect on the team’s talent.  Did Tim think he had a team of rockstars? What would it take for him to trust them? If he had a few low performers on the team, what was he doing about that? If there were performance issues underlying the trust issues, Tim would need to address them.

2. Work was being assigned in a haphazard fashion.  

The team didn’t understand how assignments were dolled out, and felt they had to jockey to get the assignments they wanted, pushing colleagues out of the way to get ahead.

Tim needed to develop (and stick to) a process.  Tim needed a system for assigning work. While this required an upfront investment of time, it created a greater sense of equity, cutting down on time dealing with fallout from an undisciplined decision-making approach. Tim chose to do this in partnership with his team. He asked for input on the factors to consider when assigning work, drafted a process and finalized it with the team.  

3. The real issues weren’t being named.

During our assessment, we observed a very polite team, one erring on the side of passive agreement or worse - silence. There were few disagreements and no healthy debate. When watching closely during team meetings, we saw subtle cues of disrespect and frustration like eye rolls, darting eyes, and scoffs. We could see differences of opinion, but they were never voiced in the moment. In small groups, team members overtly undermined and built cases for ideas that were counter to those discussed in team meetings. These sharp, highly capable team members also expressed thinly veiled doubt and sought approval from like minded colleagues, and Tim.

In response, we spent time teaching the team how to address their issues.  

Organizationally and interpersonally we generally live in a conflict averse world. We don't know how to have hard conversations (and even if we do, we usually don't want to have them). So for starters, Tim and his team needed to learn - from mindset to mechanics - how to bring an issue to a colleague’s attention.  

Upskilling the team on communications, conflict management and feedback laid the groundwork for more accountability - which is where the rubber really meets the road.

4. The team was not being held accountable for, Tim included.

Once folks were better equipped to manage productive conflict, the team had to get into the habit of addressing it in the moment, starting with Tim. When interpersonal issues are raised, Tim encouraged the parties involved to speak to one another. Initially, he supported by mediating, practicing and role-playing language, but ultimately, he had to empower those involved to take ownership and get to resolution.  

Team members also learned to identify when they were being pulled into drama-inducing situations and remove themselves. This skill will need to be regularly revisited and reinforced (this group made it a standing agenda item at their team meetings to discuss challenges and successes). And when it’s not happening, Tim will need to deal with it head on.

When you are bogged down by drama, it can be hard to see your way out. But if you can identify the issues that are feeding the drama, and address them, you will be shocked at how quickly you and your team can bounce back. To maintain supportive and high functioning teams, leaders have to recommit on a regular basis. If you’re finding yourself relating to Tim’s struggle, do an honest self assessment, equip yourself and your team and stay disciplined. The reward is more than worth it.