These are the most common roots of workplace drama

Whether it’s inauthentic leaders or lack of transparency, these issues can cause drama in your workplace to fester and lead to a hostile work environment.

These are the most common roots of workplace drama
[Photo: EllenaZ/iStock]

Chances are, you encounter drama at work regularly. My guess is that if you had a nickel every time someone asked for advice because they’d been “harassed at work” or they had to deal with an employee who is “gaming the system,” you’d have lots of nickels.


The skills required to address these situations vary, but regardless of where the drama falls on the intensity spectrum, you need to do everything in your power to manage if not eliminate it. That starts with recognizing its root causes. Any of these eight examples—not to mention a combination of them—has the potential to devastate your company.

1. Inauthentic leadership

A lack of authenticity creates or perpetuates a belief that management is hypocritical and that they only talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. In this environment, employees lose enthusiasm for their jobs, passion for what the company represents, and, most dangerously, they lose trust.

2. No consistency when it comes to problem-solving

A lack of authenticity leads to inconsistency, usually seen in the form of the failure to implement solutions in an evenhanded way. Over time, this creates actual unfairness and also creates a perception of a lack of workplace justice.

3. Persistent confusion as to whether something is unfair or illegal

Repeated inconsistency in dealing with conflict (e.g., ignoring misconduct, conducting sham investigations into claims of wrongdoing, uneven distribution of consequences when misconduct is proven) not only leads to the erosion of trust, but it also increases the probability that employees will perceive any level of misconduct not only as unfair but also as illegal. This increases the chance that they will make internal or external claims of legal violations. And in today’s social-media-led world, there is another choice: An employee’s grievance could end up on a blog, an employer review website, a social media site, or as an exposé on the front page of a national newspaper.

4. Lack of transparency

Long-standing fear of getting sued has paradoxically led to decisions that increase the chance the employer will be sued. A prime example is with the lack of transparency. Convinced that they can’t share “confidential,” “private,” or “personal” information, companies create shrouds of secrecy. In some instances, it’s inaccurate or incomplete information about why the company disciplined someone. In others, it’s making large-scale corporate changes (reorganizations, selection of new leadership, etc.) behind an impenetrable wall, with no employee knowledge or input. No matter the specific secret, two lessons are clear: Employees know more than you think they know (so trying to pull the wool over their eyes is evident to them), and you do more harm than good, since employees know you’re lying. Old-fashioned though it may sound, it pays to be honest.

5. Increased division

This confusion drives an us-versus-them mentality that causes even further division and mistrust. With increased division comes an erosion of empathy and self-awareness. It becomes nearly impossible to see the issue from the other person’s perspective and to be self-aware and humble enough to admit mistakes. When employees view matters through this lens of suspicion and selfishness, actions are more likely to be negatively interpreted, which makes drama inevitable.


6. Culture of complicity

The us-versus-them culture becomes permissive and tolerates terrible behavior. After all, in this type of culture, trouble is always blamed on the person on the opposite side. What results is a failure to view situations objectively, and we instead see them through the expedient lens of quick blame. We hide behind “business decisions.” “Charlie might be hard to take, but he’s so valuable to the company. Yes, Jessica has made some decisions that push the bounds of ethics, but external factors make it nearly impossible for her to do her job effectively.” Once you start making these types of excuses, you’ve crossed a dangerous line, and drama will be ever present.

7. Wrong solution

Since we aren’t identifying root causes to the drama, we implement ineffective solutions, or we overcorrect. The most typical answer to drama in today’s workplace is to “review our policies and procedures.” More rules. There is a growing perception of HR and leadership as cops, thus making the drama worse, not better.

8. Unwillingness to accept wrongdoing

The thought of apologizing in corporate America is unfathomable to many. But if we want to move the needle on culture, it’s a key ingredient. We all make mistakes. We fail to anticipate problems. We fail to take the time necessary to make wise decisions. We ignore problems, hoping they will go away. Making a mistake is human; failing to admit it and make amends is fatal. A company made up of leaders (or employees) who fail to admit wrongdoing is an inauthentic company, thus perpetuating the cycle of mistrust.

Unchecked, these triggers create a negative work environment and cause tangible (and detrimental) effects. Widespread mistrust leads to low morale and low productivity, high (and unnecessary) turnover, increased claims of unfairness, difficulty in recruiting and retaining top talent, legal claims, and, of course, damage to the corporate brand.

This article was adapted from The Drama Free Workplace: How You Can Prevent Unconscious Bias, Sexual Harassment, Ethics Lapses, and Inspire a Healthy CultureIt is excerpted with permission from Wiley. Copyright © 2019 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.