How to Manage Drama in the Workplace Using Your Emotional Intelligence

What working with traumatized children can teach us about correcting difficult team members.

By Meghan E. ButlerCo-founder, Frame+Function@meghanebutler
CREDIT: Getty Images

You may have heard the expression “He who stirs the pot must lick the spoon.” The gist of this is simple: Be accountable for your actions and reactions.

Seems simple enough, right? Hard no.

We all know the pot stirrer in our workplace, or have wielded the spoon ourselves (whether or not you’d like to admit it). But the truth is, well-positioned people with healthy coping mechanisms don’t stir the pot.

In addition to my work with business leaders to develop their emotional intelligence, I’ve spent a number of years as a legal advocate for foster children. These experiences meet at two specific intersections:

  1. Managing people in high stress environments
  2. Managing people who are reacting from a traumatized place

What have I learned? Trauma often leads to drama.

Generally speaking, trauma sustained in the workplace is very rarely physical or any one event. It is the result of prolonged exposure to a stressful environment, one usually generated by co-workers. And what may incite a traumatic response in one person may have zero impact on another, making it difficult to recognize.

But first, let’s quickly frame the use of “trauma” in this narrative.​

How to Spot Someone Acting From a Traumatized Place

The abusive event that caused trauma in a child may differ from that of your coworker’s experience at work, but the body and brain’s response to a traumatic experience is practically textbook. Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in metacognitive and cognitive neuropsychology, explains it this way:

Reactivity born from a traumatic experience swings like a pendulum, in varying degrees, between 1) aggression — harshness in communications and overly micromanaging to compensate for a lack of control, and 2) withdrawal — isolating and acting with passiveness, maybe falling apart in response to something that shouldn’t have caused a reaction in the first place.

For example, you might be baffled by how someone can be a high-functioning producer and contributor to the team, but be widely reviled by their team members. Is it possible that your drama monger might be reacting from a traumatized place?

When we’re managing from outside the dynamic, this leaves room for the unknown to cloud our perceptions and keeps us from mitigating the problem effectively. Before deploying the following techniques, pay attention by gaining a clearer understanding of the dynamics at play. What may be someone’s safe haven could be another’s personal hell.

I’ve found the following technique I use to manage traumatized kids also works on the pot stirrers at work.

Let’s look at how to manage and diminish the impact of bad behavior in the workplace by using the IDEAL Response, a technique created by Dr. Kathryn Purvis at Texas Christian University as part of her Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) program to help parents and guardians connect with traumatized children.

IDEAL stands for Immediate, Direct, Efficient, Action-based, and Leveled at the behavior.

Immediate — Call it out.

I’m not talking about side tackling someone away from the stove. But when you notice them grabbing the wooden spoon, acknowledge it immediately by redirecting the conversation away from them and removing their opportunity to stir the pot. It’s entirely possible you will need to increase your presence among your team to do this in the first place.

Direct — Don’t pussyfoot around it.

Corrective coaching is nuanced and delicate, but totally lost on someone who has no idea what’s going on. Be direct. Explain to them how what they’re doing is unacceptable and affects the whole team.

Efficient — Be measured but equal in intensity.

Coaching is more efficient when you match your tone to the intensity of the moment. If your employee makes passive aggressive wisecracks that dig at another or serve to redirect the heat from themselves, call it out with a crack and move on. Then address it with them privately.

Action-based — Give a mulligan.

More often than not, the team member stirring the pot is likely responding to trauma sustained in their role. They may not realize what they’re doing because it’s accumulated slowly over time and now it’s “just how they’re wired.”

Good leaders present the opportunity for do-overs because they fundamentally understand there’s more at play than the event itself.

“Let’s try that again” is an effective tactic with both children and adults. It shows you care enough in the moment to let them find a way to do it better. It also helps them build better reactions to stressful moments. Thank goodness for neuroplasticity!

Leveled at the behavior — Make it about the event, not the person.

Coach to an action, not a personality trait. Leading with empathy means managing the whole person by acknowledging their actions can reflect a mindset without defining their entire being.

It is not your job as their leader to fix their trauma. Rather, you must recognize pain points within the team environment, remove the opportunities for bad behavior, and create moments for improvement.

There’s nothing to stir if there’s nothing brewing.

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