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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Ditching the Drama

Kernels of truth amid its absurdity help make the NBC sitcom The Office so popular. In one episode, in order to cover up his own gossiping about a subordinate's extramarital affair, boss Michael Scott decides to spread rumors about all his colleagues.

While you may have never encountered a rumor in your office that you had another person inside you working you with controls, or that you were the voice for the Taco Bell dog (just two of the many stories Scott made up), everyone has seen their fair share of office drama.

According to Kaley Klemp and Jim Warner -- authors of the book The Drama-Free Office: A Guide to Healthy Collaboration With Your Team, Coworkers and Boss, published in July by Greenleaf Book Group Press -- infighting, water-cooler gossip, meaningless meanings, turf wars, pouting, rants and other manifestations of office drama block positive, productive interactions and drain the collective office energy.

The authors identify seven steps to eliminating workplace drama and getting back to business.

Step 1: Get Out of Your Own Drama

Klemp and Warner say that one of the most difficult challenges for aspiring leaders is to take responsibility for relationship shortcomings or, as they put it, to "own their stuff." The authors advise taking inventory of your "interaction strengths," where you positively affect your office relationships, and to be honest with yourself about the ways you might sabotage those relationships. This can be done through self-reflection, open dialogue with colleagues, or by completing their self-assessment survey. But whatever the method, "It requires the vulnerability and courage to seek others' candid observations and advice about your behavior," they say.

Step 2: Diagnose the Type of Drama in the Other Person

The authors have identified the types of "drama roles" that most frequently emerge in office settings: the Complainer, the Controller, the Cynic and the Caretaker. Being aware of these different drama roles and being familiar with the types you're dealing with will allow you maximize your chances to change their behavior. "There is no one-size-fits-all antidote for drama," Klemp and Warner say. For example, Controllers and Cynics respond more to direct confrontation and setting boundaries, while Caretakers and Complainers are more likely to respond to appreciation and encouragement.

Step 3: Assess the Risk of Confronting the Other Person

Before meeting with drama-prone colleagues, you must identify and evaluate the potential downsides of a confrontation, Klemp and Warner say. This step will help you avoid situations where you accept a dysfunctional relationship that could have been salvaged or make a miscalculated confrontation that could have been avoided. Thinking through the various ways the individual might respond, and whether you're willing to face those various responses, should guide your decision-making.

Step 4: Develop Rapport With the Drama-Prone Person

Klemp and Warner say that establishing rapport with the individual is crucial. They suggest laying the groundwork to ensure drama-prone colleagues are best prepared to receive your message. The authors advise a careful mix of connection, appreciation, ground rules and expectations, with the goal of getting their full attention and setting them up to be receptive to your ideas. "People prefer to collaborate with those they know and like, so this step is powerful in setting the tone for the rest of the conversation," Klemp and Warner say.

Step 5: Have a Direct Conversation

The art of the direct conversation is a topic for a whole separate column (or perhaps a new book for Klemp and Warner), but the authors advise when confronting someone about their drama stay dispassionate and state "the facts" clearly and concisely. They also advise discussing your perceptions of the situation and any undercurrents of emotion. Then, they say, comes the tough part. You should share with the person how you contributed to the situation (why it's your fault, too), and then end with a specific request. The goal is to end the conversation with an agreement about what will happen next to make sure the drama ends.

Step 6: Get Their Commitment

Klemp and Warner concede that the endgame of Step 5 is easier said than done. Getting drama-prone colleagues to commit to your requests or to respond to your expectations "without excuses, sarcasm, self-pity or martyrdom is often difficult," they say. There is a tendency to dance around the expectation, rephrase it in vague terms or use other deflection or evasion tactics to avoid change and accountability. "Don't get hooked," Klemp and Warner say. "Reiterate both your specific expectations and your need for the drama-prone person's commitment to meet them. If she continues to resist or deflect, be prepared to calmly lay out an ultimatum, including specific rewards for meeting objectives and consequences for missing objectives."

Step 7: Validate and Anchor Their Commitment and New Behavior

Follow-up to the conversation and resolution reaffirms the new behavior. Klemp and Warner say asking individuals to create a summary of your meeting, including the specific agreements, tends to help people live up to their commitments. Summarizing these actions in a short note or email confirming the person's commitments and praising their positive behaviors can go a long way to establishing a drama-free agency.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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