My cousin Albert Sengstock recently sent me a book he is writing. In it, he made a statement that grabbed my attention: The underlying issue of most of our problems is an over-dependence on intensity and drama.
When I thought about it, I realized that this is very true in the workplace. We are naturally attracted to intensity and drama. We allow ourselves to get caught up in it, and we perpetuate it by letting our hurt or anger get out of control. And it does lead to much bigger problems.
Here’s how our role in “intensity and drama” might play out. First, we get angry about an upsetting thing someone said or did. We start lashing out and berating the person. We start awfulizing and ruminating. We give the event a lot more power than it should rightfully have. We draw in others because of our need to be validated. We won’t let the issue die. And in the process, everyone around us gets upset and thrown off-kilter.
It’s not just employees who display this kind of behavior. Leaders do it, too. Nearly all of us do it to a certain extent. We are all human. We all have moments of emotional immaturity. And we all need to work on solving this dynamic, because, frankly, as leaders, it’s our job to defuse unproductive situations and model the right behavior.
Intensity and drama can be quite destructive. First, it eats up our time and energy. I’ve read a lot about how people struggle to do “deep work” these days. This is often attributed to the pace of life and non-stop digital distractions, but I notice a lot of it also has to do with unnecessary drama. We let small things get blown out of proportion, and they take on a life of their own.
Plus, stirring up drama erodes trust and goodwill. It harms relationships. It destroys the credibility of the person who is being discussed in such a bad light. (When people hear a leader bad-mouthing someone, they are likely to believe it, even if it’s unfair or even untrue.) And all of these things are counter to the culture of positivity that we want to create. In the thick of all this negative emotion, how can anyone think creatively and solve problems?
For all of these reasons, leaders need to take a step back and think about our role in the organization. Things that upset us will always happen, but we don’t have to get self-righteously angry or have the last word or teach the person a lesson. These are choices. What we need to consider is our legacy. What do we want to be known for? What kind of leader do we want to be remembered as having been?
The best thing we can do is drive the ship with a steady hand. This teaches others how to respond to things that upset them as well. We can show people by our actions how to defuse situations and keep things from exploding. And in the end, our calm and mature behavior establishes us as problem-solvers and real leaders. A few tips:
If you find yourself getting upset with someone, don’t react immediately. Give yourself some time to settle down or see if new information comes to light. Often, waiting a day makes a huge difference in how you feel or how you perceive what happened.
Try to consider the other person’s perspective. Is it possible they just don’t see the big picture? Leaders often expect employees to see it when they simply don’t. Remember, their day-to-day reality is very different from yours. Maybe the person has just come from a meeting that accentuated a certain aspect of business that shaped their thinking about something in a way that just doesn’t make sense out of context.
Also, look at their reputation and intentions. Sometimes our gut reaction is to assume people are being lazy or manipulative or trying to take advantage of a situation. That’s what makes us angry. But when we stop to think about the person’s reputation, we will usually realize this is not the case. Ask yourself: Is the person a known troublemaker? If the answer is no, it’s more likely they were misinformed or simply made an honest mistake.
When you are ready to talk to them, check your own emotional temperature. Ask yourself: Do I feel a burning need to be “right” at this moment? Do I need to show the person who’s boss? If you realize you’re gearing up to berate or lecture or teach the person a lesson, things are likely to get heated. Make an effort to shift your mindset. If you can’t, then delay the conversation a little longer.
Try to approach the conversation from a coaching perspective. Quite often you will realize the person did what they did not to be malicious but because they didn’t see the big picture or didn’t realize they were being inappropriate. When you calmly explain your perspective, very often they will say, “Oh, I see what you mean.” Good employees usually take feedback well when given in the right spirit.
Let “I’m sorry” work its magic. Give the person a chance to apologize. A genuine mea culpa goes a long way toward mending a relationship, but if you lay into them right away, this is far less likely to happen. And it’s not a one-way street: If you played a role in escalating the situation, you need to apologize as well.
Before you end the conversation, make sure both parties are willing to forgive and let it go. This is why it’s so important to talk things out and to make sure the other person also gets to have their say. When leaders avoid addressing a problem—or conversely when they “lay down the law” and then walk away from the conversation—this closure will not happen. The issue will always fester beneath the surface.
Don’t discuss the issue with others who aren’t involved. First, it’s disrespectful. Second, it causes coworkers to develop a negative impression of the person. After the situation is resolved, they will always see the person as someone who did a destructive or not-so-smart thing.
All of this is very, very tough. Believe me, I get it. We all have our demons to wrestle with and triggers that set us off. But the great thing is that we can get better and healthier and happier. It’s just a matter of deciding to be a better human being and leader today than we were yesterday. It’s one day at a time, one step at a time, one conversation at a time.
When we learn how to intervene in our own destructive patterns, we will see a huge shift in how others respond to us. We’ll free ourselves up to solve the issues we face with clarity and calmness rather than flying off the handle and wasting all that energy. That’s when we start seeing positive progress in our relationships, our company, and our life in general.