My employees keep venting to me - how do I get the drama to stop?

Dear No More Drama,

Ooof. This is a big one. As a leader, separating venting from important questions and concerns takes time and patience. It can be a drag to listen to people complain without solutions or bring you their concerns without seeing their role in the problem. 

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Recently, I’ve been reading psychologist Cy Wakeman’s book, No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results. She tells us the average person spends 2.5 hours per day in internal drama. Wow!

In her book, Wakeman promotes a new role for leaders. In the same way leaders use Lean to reduce process waste and increase productivity, she advocates for leaders to help employees eliminate emotional waste by facilitating good mental process. 

To decrease drama at your desk and in your organization, tune into the following three areas drawn from Cy’s work.

  1. Help employees step out of victim mode and into helping mode

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Cy describes two states that the brain can operate in. 

Low State: victim, venting, scorekeeping, arguing with reality, how we can’t

High State: possibilities, creative, collaborative, innovative, how we can

The brain can only be in one of these states at a time, and the key to moving from Low to High is Self-Reflection.

When staff bring their problems to you, it’s likely they are operating in the Low State. They probably don’t realize they are operating as a victim.  As a leader, it can feel helpful to commiserate, or take on the problems to solve for our team members. Cy pointed out these approaches actually can keep your staff in the victim mode. Instead, Wakeman suggests inviting staff to move out of Low State into High State by asking them what they can do to help.

Note: this isn’t about asking the other person how you, as the leader, can help them. Instead, you are asking them to ask themselves what THEY can do to help the situation or person they are complaining about. 

When you get your team members to imagine possibilities, they can shift their brain out of the productivity-sucking blaming and judging, and into High State innovation.

These shifts invite the employee into the situation and they can start to see themselves as part of the solution. Change their thoughts and you can decrease the drama.

“The impact of a leader does not come from what he or she tells team members, but from what he or she gets them thinking about.” - Cy Wakeman

2. Ask employees ‘What do you know for sure?’

In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown shares a universal truth: in the absence of data, we will always make up stories; our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Brené warns about the human tendency to replace missing information with something false we believe to be true. Her suggested tool is to get curious: share what we know for sure first, followed by the phrase, “I’m making up that…”. 

The self-reflection of separating the observable facts from the story helps keep people from being sucked into drama and conflict. 

Many people think venting is helpful, and it lets out emotions rather than leave them bottled up. Cy points out much of what people vent about never happened in the first place. When we stop and reflect on what we know for sure, it is usually much less than the story we have been making up to vent about. 

Another question to shift from negative thinking about the situation to possibility-thinking comes from Donald Miller: “How would this be different if the universe was aligning in your favor?”  Explore the answers your employees come up with.

“Pretend the world is conspiring to make you successful.” -- Donald Miller

3. Help your employees create their own definition of great

In the first two steps you’ve encouraged your employees to challenge their stories and get into a helping mindset to create solutions to the situation at hand. 

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Two more helpful Self-Reflection questions from Cy are:

  • “What would great look like?” 

  • “What can I do to add value?”

These questions help move your employees from “this is happening to me” to “I can influence the outcome. ” 

When Cy gets a response to this question, she looks in the other person’s eyes and earnestly says, “Wonderful. Go be great.”

Putting this into practice

As an example, one of our coaching clients was about to release a new software tool. She expected the leader in another department, who had not been very involved in the development, would come and complain about the implementation. Normally she would get defensive, and dwell internally on how frustrated she was he hadn’t participated earlier. Instead, this time she asked herself, “What would great look like?” and pictured how she would like it to be. She decided to take the stance of showing genuine empathy and understanding for the other department’s difficulty, and then earnestly asked how she could help. This preemptive self-reflection reduced her anxiety and set their team up for collaboration. 

If you are noticing drama in your organization, try experimenting with Self-Reflective questions for yourself and your team. If you would like help answering the question, “What would great look like for you and your organization?" let’s talk.