Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

4 Ways to Avoid Becoming Part of the Drama

Peter Bay/

Let’s face it, some people thrive on bringing their personal challenges into the workplace and baring them all for the world to see. These drama kings and queens seem to revel in sharing their own misery with us in a seemingly never-ending series of scenes from the worst tragic Broadway or faux-Shakespearean play ever.

As distracting and annoying as these people and their gray clouds of doom and dust become, it’s all too easy for the manager to get caught up in these serial soap operas, excusing poor performance or spotty attendance due to the nightmarish circumstances of the latest tragedy, illness, divorce, breakup, melt-down or (insert one you’ve heard before). In some cases, the unwitting manager gets sucked into this black hole of emotional turmoil and productivity loss and takes on the role of counselor. The outcome in this situation is almost always a bad one.

In the section entitled, “The Top Ten Challenges of New Leaders” in our book, Practical Lessons in Leadership, Rich Petro and I served up at number 3, “The personal problems of your associates will become your problems if you let them (and sometimes you can’t help it). It was No. 3, not No. 10 for a reason. Playing the role of counselor or headshrinker without a license is like driving blindfolded down the freeway on the way to work. You’re going to crash.

While I’m supportive of those in leadership roles cultivating strong working relationships that incorporate empathy and the right kind of support for the personal challenges of team members, beware crossing the line from empathy and support to becoming part of the dramatic play. Once you cross this line, you risk sacrificing your objectivity not only with the individual in question, but also in the eyes of your entire team.

Here are four ideas to help you avoid becoming part of the drama:

1. Get to know your team members. They aren’t automatons, human capital or pieces of equipment. They are human beings. Show interest in their work and their lives. Ask questions about the pictures on their desk. If hobbies or weekend activities come up in casual discussion, it’s nice to show interest. It’s better yet if you share interests and can easily share experiences or ideas. While some managers strive to avoid any connection or even understanding of people’s lives outside of work, it’s not necessary to put up false walls. Effective leaders understand that people feel respected and appreciated when the boss views them as humans with lives inside and outside of the workplace.

2. Know that empathy and appropriate support are always in style. If you learn of a challenging situation with one of your team members, it is better to acknowledge your concern and caring and offer the right kind of support rather than ignore the situation. The right kind of support includes extending schedule flexibility or, encouraging the individual to take time off as needed to deal with the challenge. Life happens and people need a break. However, if someone requires a never-ending stream of breaks, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands.

3. Resist the urge to play counselor. It’s often tempting for managers to play armchair counselor or psychiatrist, but almost all of us lack the requisite training for these roles. Additionally, our companies are paying us to lead, motivate, inspire and perform, however, no organization wants us serving as headshrinker to the personal challenges of our team members. When approached with the problem, display concern and encourage the individual to gain the right type of help and expertise for the situation outside of work. Resist being drawn into the drama.

4. Know that conscientious listening can quickly turn into active enabling for those workplace tragedians who would prey on our good intentions. In my case, I only had to play the part of the enabling manager once, investing what seemed likes hundreds of hours and countless performance exceptions for a talented but seemingly troubled employee before I learned my lesson. The problems and our counseling sessions became the focus of our workplace relationship, with me convinced that if I could help this talented but troubled individual, I would make the team and firm stronger. In reality, I simply funded a chronic problem and created a whole host of new challenges. Listen, show genuine interest, but don’t get sucked into the drama.

You’re there to help, and yes, you’re there to develop others. However, your rights and obligations end at the line where personal problems begin. You are neither confessor nor counselor, and you can’t allow yourself to be sucked into the drama that swirls like a storm around some people. The best thing you can do for yourself, your team and your organization is to offer empathy and flexibility within reason, however even this has a limit. Cross this limit at your own peril.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. Art writes the Management Excellence blog.

(Image via Peter Bay/

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.