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Workplace drama: What’s it costing your company?


Workplace drama could be costing your business thousands of dollars each year. For larger companies, losses can reach millions of dollars.

Everyone has encountered workplace drama. You just may not have known what to call it.

The office gossip. The resister to change. The persistent arguer. The projector of made-up stories.

Drama creates “mentally wasteful thought processes or unproductive behavior,” wrote drama researcher Cy Wakeman in “No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results,” her book on the subject. 

These wasteful behaviors take a toll on your business. Over time, they can chip away at morale and productivity and lead to turnover and lost revenue.

By better understanding the underlying issues that lead to workplace drama, you can mitigate some (if not all) of this lost productivity.

What are the costs of workplace drama?

To best understand the importance of addressing workplace drama, let’s look at what it could be costing your company.

When drama lurks into your business, there are soft costs. These are the mentally and emotionally draining factors that build over time and lead to hard costs.

The subject of office gossip may learn that their colleagues talk negatively about them, which can foster resentment, anger and conflict. A disgruntled employee is less likely to give discretionary effort in their job. It may even lead them to quit.

When workers devote time to workplace drama issues, they aren’t focused on productive business activities. This may mean missed sales, lost clients, poor customer service and less time planning and implementing core business strategies. 

Wakeman’s research found that the average employee spends two hours and 26 minutes per day on drama and emotional waste.

Let’s assume company ABC employs 100 people, who each earn $30 an hour and work 40 hours per week. Their annual wages equal $6.24 million. Based on Wakeman’s research, the cost of emotional waste is more than $1.7 million. That’s nearly 29 percent of the total wages paid.

And these are just some of the hard costs. Add to that the expense of recruiting a replacement employee for a departing worker, and your costs only mount further.

How do you prevent or address workplace drama?

The best way to handle workplace drama is to understand how it forms and address the source.

There are a few main behaviors that lead to emotional waste:

  1. Gossiping and spreading rumors
  2. Being defensive or resistant to feedback
  3. Venting and complaining
  4. Tattling and judging others
  5. Comparing your situation to others

At their root, each of these behaviors comes down to ego and communication – often poor communication.  The key to reducing drama is to remove the ego-driven behavior and steer employees back to reality and fact-based details of the situation.

The first step in addressing employees mired in drama is to encourage them to assume noble intent. People, on the whole, are inherently good, and while they may engage in activities that lower morale and dampen productivity, being malicious was likely not their intent.

For instance, let’s take the example of Joe the gossip.

He tells his colleague that he saw their coworkers, Bill and Sue, at the movies together. A rumor spreads that Bill and Sue are in a romantic relationship. Sue eventually hears of this and becomes embarrassed, because it’s just a budding friendship.

Joe the gossip didn’t intend to hurt Sue or Bill, but his careless actions instigated unnecessary workplace drama that distracted from their jobs.

Emotions can get the best of even the strongest willed individuals, particularly in high-stress environments. In this scenario, it’s important to calm Sue down by reassuring her that you understand her concerns and will work to remedy the situation. The key here is to be empathetic with Sue.

Then you must speak privately with Joe the gossip. Ask him to reflect on and take accountability of his actions. Encourage him to find a solution that dissolves any hurt feelings and begins to rebuild team comradery.

Or let’s look at Rosie the resister to change.

You recently implemented a state-of-the-art project management system. Overtime, it should increase team efficiency and reduce the margin for error. Everyone on your team buys into the new tool and completes the online training course, except Rosie.

Not only does Rosie refuse to learn the new system, but she talks negatively about its interface and how it is waste of company resources.

What are you, the business owner, to do?

You should first ask yourself if you could have done anything differently. Change can intimidate people. Could you have better introduced the new tool, why it’s important and how it will benefit the company?

Did you solicit input from the team? Could it be the case that Rosie doesn’t dislike the new system, but instead feels overshadowed that she didn’t have a say in what system was chosen?

Sometimes it may not have been possible or feasibly to hear Rosie’s concerns early in the process. In those cases, outline the facts that there is a new system, and ask Rosie how she will work within this new reality.

You will have to have a difficult conversation with Rosie. Politely ask why she is resistant to the new system. Listen to what she has to say and empathize with her situation. While empathy is important, you want to be careful to not unintentionally support her negative feelings toward the new software.

Offer a solution to her concerns, but also be firm that this is the direction you are taking the company, and that it is her responsibility to learn to use the project management software.

Remind Rosie that she must hold herself accountable for her own actions. During the time she spent complaining about the software, Rosie could have completed the training program. If Rosie has remaining concerns after the introductory course, then ask her to provide actionable feedback for improvement. Criticism isn’t helpful unless it’s constructive.

It’s easy to shift the blame on something new or intangible. Recognizing your own ego – or that of your employees – is challenging. Holding your employees accountable and them holding themselves accountable is the solution to ego-driven drama.

Drama might be only one of a handful of common issues your business faces. A sound strategy for dealing with these complex situations is paramount to your success. For more insight on being the best leader you can be for your company, download our free e-magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.