You know the type: The sky is falling. We’re all going to get fired. The end is near. The office drama king or queen has just arrived. And your energy is about to be depleted through needless conflict, hysteria, and speculation.
Unfortunately, this type of coworker or employee isn’t uncommon. Workplace communication and negotiation expert Linda Swindling, JD, author of Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers: How to Negotiate Work Drama to Get More Done, says her research has shown that more than three-quarters of respondents to a 2012 survey she conducted said they spent three to six hours dealing with dramatic coworkers and colleagues, while 11% left a job over that type of behavior.
“And it’s not just that you’re losing the 11%. It’s that you’re losing the 11% that are good enough to go somewhere else,” Swindling says.
Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to manage and even reduce some of this behavior. Try these steps to dethroning the office drama king or queen.
Psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, cofounder of New York City-based workplace consulting firm K Squared, advises clients to neutralize catastrophic thinking and attitudes as much as possible. That may mean gathering more information to get clarity or assess whether the situation is really as serious as it’s being presented or restating the situation in a factual but more measured way.
For example, if your coworker is saying his computer is “completely destroyed,” you may need to ask some troubleshooting questions to try to assess the situation, says Crowley, who is coauthor of Working With You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself From Emotional Traps at Work. But don’t validate the catastrophic thinking by getting upset, since that’s what this type of person is typically looking for, she says.
“They’re highly anxious people who aren’t able to self-regulate their own emotions, so when something happens, they may feel as if their world is ending. More often, it’s not. What they do is they spray their anxiety onto you,” she says.
Once you’ve determined just how serious–or not–the problem is, put the onus back on the drama perpetrator to find a solution, Swindling says. Simply asking what he or she plans to do about the situation can short-circuit a quest for attention and put responsibility back in the court of your high-strung coworker.
You may make suggestions, such as checking in with a certain department or supervisor for answers, but don’t get drawn into fixing the problem yourself, she adds. That will just encourage the person to come to you next time instead of managing the problem or finding solutions on his or her own.
That doesn’t mean you need to ignore your office’s drama royalty entirely. Swindling says it can be helpful to try to understand what he gets out of stirring the pot. Is it simply the need for attention? Perhaps he wants to feel needed or valued. If you can get a sense of the driver behind the behavior, you may be able to reduce it by helping the person find more-productive ways to get the need met, Swindling says. Reinforce positive behavior by praising it or rewarding it.
When everyone’s under the gun, office conflict, tension, and other negative dynamics can escalate, Swindling says. That may stoke the fires of anxious or drama-prone employees or coworkers. They may find ways to make things worse or create stumbling blocks, she says. At these times, you may need to give these employees very specific responsibilities and reinforcement so they don’t have an opportunity to derail your project with unnecessary tension or imaginary disasters.
It can be hard to not let drama kings and queens wear on you and those around you, Crowley says. But it’s important to practice “physically unhooking” by finding the best ways for you to release the tension these coworkers create, she says. That may include going for a walk, practicing yoga, or doing something else to decompress. “You should be doing that on a regular basis, because that will help you come back to center,” she says. Treat dealing with these coworkers like you would other high-stress situations, and be sure you take care of yourself.