The Drama-Free Workplace
Reducing workplace drama starts with a foundation of psychological safety and a commitment to a gossip-free work zone
By RaeAnn Thomas, PT, DPT, MS
Drama. The truth? You love it. Oxford Languages defines drama by using the word “exciting,” and one of the reasons we find drama so interesting is our deep-rooted attraction to storytelling.1 The historical study of communication tells us that our ancestors gathered around fire and water to tell the stories of their day.
We still enjoy the more evolved version of this in the form of things like TED Talks, which are strategically outlined to captivate us and to pull at our heartstrings. We innately love the stories that often accompany drama, but fortunately, our lives are not reality TV shows, and drama in the workplace is hurtful, destructive, and costly to your businesses.2 Most of us have witnessed a toxic work culture, which is usually infused with drama. And what is the underlying facet of drama? Gossip. How can you reduce drama and gossip? First, establish psychological safety among your team. Second, ensure that your leadership team commits to a gossip-free work zone.
What is psychological safety, and how do we foster it? Psychological safety refers to the shared belief that team members will not be rejected or embarrassed for speaking up with their ideas, questions, or concerns.3 Gossip often begins with uncertainty. If there is uncertainty, but psychological safety has been established, a person can come directly to you at the first hint of questionable behavior. However, if your organization lacks psychological safety, your employees will discuss uncertainties among their own ranks, and this is how the gossip commences. I like to establish an “ask me” relationship with my team. If they are curious about a situation or get a whiff of gossip that has begun circulating about a decision I have made or anything else that is concerning to them, I encourage them to “ask me”! If you have established psychological safety, your team will feel comfortable knowing that there will be no repercussions to their inquiry. It is critical to thank your employees for coming to you first. Obviously, you may not always be able to make them privy to all the details of a situation, but you should be as transparent as possible when they come to you. In this case, the answer may be something along the lines of “I want to share more with you about this within the next week” or “Yes, we are exploring the option you brought up, but nothing has been decided yet. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES
Almost as important as psychological safety is a commitment from leadership that drama and gossip are not acceptable. This is a “practice what you preach” situation. You genuinely must commit to fostering this type of environment, and you must practice these behaviors, not only with your subordinates but also with your cohorts and superiors.
Will you be tempted to gossip? Yes! Everyone is, and when you are a leader, people are chomping at the bit to share gossip with you in an attempt to foster a connection to get on your good side. This sounds like a fifth-grade stunt, but even as adults we get an adrenaline hit at the first sight of gossip or drama. Even for the strong-willed, it’s difficult to look away from a train wreck. Here are a few actionable suggestions to reduce your participation in gossip and to coach your team on more effective methods of communication:
GRACE IS KEY
It may not be possible to eliminate drama and gossip entirely. We are only human, and we likely will make mistakes. The key is to have some grace for yourself and others when you deviate from your commitment to avoid them. If you witness your colleagues gossiping, gently nudge them, and ask them to do the same for you when you are off track. Then do what you need to course correct, whether that be offering an apology or having a difficult conversation. Whatever you do, remember that it’s important to do it quickly. When you make psychological safety in your office a priority, everyone benefits, leadership, employees, and patients alike.
1Walan S, Enochsson AB. The potential of using a combination of storytelling and drama, when teaching young children science. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 2019;27(6):821-836. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293x.2019.1678923
2Hills L. Ten Ways to Reduce Workplace Drama. Journal of Practice Management, 33(1).
3Bresman H, Edmondson AC. “Research: To Excel, Diverse Teams Need Psychological Safety. Harvard Business Review.” Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2022/03/research-to-excel-diverse-teams-need-psychological-safety.
4DiPierro K, Lee H, Pain KJ, Durning, SJ, Choi JJ. Groupthink among health professional teams in patient care: A scoping review. Medical Teacher, 2021;44(3):309-318. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159x.2021.1987404
5Davey L. (2016, November 29). How to Tell the Difference Between Venting and Office Gossip. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-tell-the-difference-between-venting-and-office-gossip.
RaeAnn Thomas, PT, DPT, MS, is a PPS member and has an 18-year history of owning physical therapy clinics. She is now co-owner of Evolution Imaging and adjunct PT professor at the University of Oklahoma. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org