The sheer number of social media posts about the Will Smith-Chris Rock incident at the Oscars is proof that it’s hard to resist the attraction to drama—especially when it’s not happening to you. As companies start to return to the office and watercooler talk is easier to engage in, office drama might start to pick up, especially after going through the pandemic for the past two years.
“People need a break,” says corporate relationship strategist Gilda Carle. “Office drama is an attraction that fills the need to lighten up. It’s especially titillating when the gossip includes people you know so well. You’ve been in each other’s living rooms for two years.”
Jennifer Edwards, coauthor of Bridge the Gap: Breakthrough Communication Tools to Transform Work Relationships From Challenging to Collaborative, says we are social creatures who learn by comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. “So when gossip and drama enter the scene and we are ‘invited’ to participate, our natural, biological inclination is to jump right into the toxicity because it affirms that we belong, and our perspective is valued,” she says.
While not everyone is attracted to office drama, those who are may also find it to be a good method for battling under-stimulation or mundane daily surroundings at the office, says Chicago-based psychologist David Rakofsky, president of Wellington Counseling Group. “Many people in the workplace—at every level of an organization—have brains that crave novelty, and the juicy intrigue of an office spat can deliver on that need,” he says.
And being a bystander to the drama may be comforting for your insecurities, Rakofsky adds, noting, “As a bystander to the drama and not the subject of it, they may believe they are going to be viewed by the decision makers as more stable, reliable employees, worthy of retention and better compensation when compared to the more conspicuous ‘troublemaker.'”
When we consciously or unconsciously compare ourselves to others, we are showcasing how we are better. “What really is ineffective about this type of engagement,” Edwards says, “is that it builds our identity not around being trustworthy or reliable as resources to support and collaborate with, and that is bad for business.”
The Impact of Office Drama
It may seem harmless on the surface, but office drama can have broader consequences. Drama can escalate to hurt people’s feelings and reputations, demotivate them, isolate them, and even take down a business, Carle says, noting, “So while it might start as a healthy breather, it would be more healthy to laugh with your colleagues rather than at them. In the long run, you may be saving your own career.”
Office drama also negatively impacts a company’s ability to grow, scale, and attract talent, says Richard Hawkes, author of Navigate the Swirl: 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation.
“Companies that have leaders who don’t take office drama seriously get themselves into a state of inertia,” Hawkes says. “When people get caught up in office drama, it can be difficult for them to drive decisions. There’s always another turf battle or political challenge to react to.”
Leaders need to be willing to lead teams. “Organizations need to create a context in which leaders are held accountable for their team’s performance,” Hawkes says. “That creates a context for resolving problems in the first place. Without that there’s no foundation to clean up the behaviors that are blocking them from getting things problem solved.”
Hawkes recommends conversations that include activating purpose, driving focus, and shifting mindset. “Those have to do with culture and leadership,” he says. “Getting past drama means getting clear about a shared purpose and shared focus and knowing what mindset we need to engage with each other. Pick your problem, lean into the conversation, figure out what’s happening.”
Ultimately, leaders who are caught up in drama or any conflicted situation have four choices, according to Hawkes. First, they need to muster up the leadership courage to demand better behaviors from themselves and others. “It’s to lean right into this stuff, and it’s the optimal choice,” he says.
The second choice is to learn to depersonalize the situation and live with the stress. “[This] doesn’t usually work very well,” Hawkes says. “People pretend that they’re doing that and then they just kind of implode.”
The third choice is to leave the organization, leave the team, and go somewhere else, which can depend on your involvement. And the fourth option is to become part of the problem, playing along with the games.
“The fourth choice needs to be discouraged,” Hawkes says. “The first, second, and third are noble choices. It’s perfectly noble to leave an organization if the situation cannot be resolved.”