Drama makes for great reality TV, but it's not great for propelling company growth. Leaders need to welcome different viewpoints, encourage problem-solving and create an open atmosphere. It may seem that that kind of environment just begs for personality differences. Heck, maybe that's healthy, right?

Too often, leaders decide to avoid the drama altogether. To be sure, this move is a sanity saver. Eschewing complaints and interpersonal conflicts allows you to live in a bubble, contentedly working your plan for growth without getting distracted or depressed by little details.

But those little details can unravel your growth if you aren't careful. By keeping things "strictly business," your team ends up dictating your culture. If tempers flare out of control and each meeting feels like a battle, you're sure to lose your highest performers. If they seek out calmer pastures, you can kiss your growth goodbye.

A 2016 CareerBuilder survey of more than 5,000 hiring managers and employees found gossip is a major distraction, with 39 percent of employees affected. Following only smartphones and the internet -- prime sources of gossip themselves -- gossip hurt productivity. 

Think about the real-time investment: Not only are people not working, but when they're done talking, they're still thinking about what they heard. A 2008 joint study from the University of California, Irvine, and Humboldt University in Germany found that it took students 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task after a distraction. Your employees aren't any better at getting back on task after ruminating over gossip.

The study found that people were also more stressed after distractions and more likely to speed up. And in most cases, as speed increases, so do errors. That can start a vicious cycle: Teammates grumble about Tom's bad reports. After complaining about the inaccuracy of the reports around the water cooler, they realize they only have an hour left to get Tom their numbers. Working quickly, they mess up their own numbers, which Tom fails to check. In one fell swoop, everyone's frustration level increased while work quality decreased. 

Here's how to short-circuit productivity-draining drama without getting mired in it.

1. Give your team coping mechanisms. 

People annoy each other sometimes. They make each other's lives harder. It's unrealistic to expect Pollyanna attitudes and a sudden blind spot when it comes to aggravation. Instead, help your teammates reframe how they see frustrations. Use your open door to welcome five minutes of venting -- but they have to be followed by solutions or options. Train your team to see possibilities, even in annoyance. It will improve your company's innovation and help your employees depersonalize frustrations.

Another way to do this: Ask your teammates what they're willing to change. If someone is frustrated by something, point out that she can't control someone else's behavior -- but she can adjust her own. Could she think of something differently? Could she take 10 minutes before reacting? Could she change part of her process to eliminate an annoyance?

2. Implement a 'no-asshole' rule in the office.

Bob Sutton's "No-Asshole Rule" has earned a lot of attention as a way to avoid promoting tyrants or taking on clients who are jerks. But it's also a good rule to enforce in your office. When hiring, present candidates with challenging hypothetical situations to gauge how they'd respond to co-workers. With current employees, introduce the rule, as well as fun ways to hold each other accountable. 

One CEO I'm friends with had a d-bag jar in his office, inspired by the TV show "New Girl," so teammates could openly call each other out for inappropriate comments. Another leader I know takes a pause after anyone says or does something "off" and then asks the team if it landed weirdly. He said it's eliminated a lot of behind-the-scenes whispering.

3. When all else fails, force awkwardness.

When tensions bubble out of control, make teammates face it head-on. One mentor put it best: "If people are going to engage in drama, they have to feel the consequences of it."

Sure, some employees feel they're the victims of others' behavior, but it takes two to tango. If someone is hoping you'll intervene -- and it's not an issue of harassment -- make that person address the conflict first. After he's gotten a reaction or attempted to make a change, you can get involved -- but not before then.

Interpersonal conflicts can quickly affect everything in their path: people, projects, companies. Don't let your business's growth be dictated by the drama inside it; avoid the urge to ignore it. Your culture -- and bottom line -- will thank you.

Published on: Sep 12, 2019
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