Drama queens: Stamping out toxic behaviour before it kills your culture

"How could you be so stupid? Did you leave your brain at home today?"

Drama queens: Stamping out toxic behaviour before it kills your culture

What does high school and HR have in common? Drama queens – or rather perfecting the art of dealing with them.

Bonnie Low-Kramen, TEDx speaker and renowned workplace author, tells HRD that drama queens are the epitome of toxic inter-colleague conflict, with underhand behaviors and sly digs much more common than you might think.

In fact, a survey from Robert Half, cited on LinkedIn, found that nearly 60% of employees says dealing with difficult colleagues is a necessary evil in order to progress in their careers.

But how do you spot one of these toxic co-workers? Well, there’s a few common, if not cringey, phrases: “How could you be so stupid?” “Did you leave your brain at home today?” “You know we can’t do XYZ.”

These are all classic examples of toxic, dramatic behaviour at work, according to Low-Kramen. She tells HRD that other examples include ostracizing a colleague, leaving them out of a social gathering, sending a nastygram email that includes disparaging language, or micromanaging.

“A drama queen can be a woman or a man who can be counted on to react melodramatically and over the top to situations for which that response is not appropriate,” says Low-Kramen. “The drama queen eats up valuable time and energy by demanding constant attention, not unlike a small child.

“Fellow staff seek to avoid the drama queen who sucks out the energy, creativity, and time of most everyone. When the behaviours are tolerated, this eventually results in the company losing time and money.”

The making of a drama queen

As the author of Staff Matters, People-Focused Solutions for the Ultimate New Workplace, Low-Kramen knows all there is to know about employee and employer behaviour – having spent time assessing and analyzing the nuances and intricate balances that make up an organizational ecosystem.

Speaking to HRD, she says that it’s essential to call out drama queens – calling them “a cancer that poisons a company from the inside out.” As such, she warns employers that it’s important to get to the root of why a drama queen behaves that way they do.

“Drama queen behaviour is a form of manipulation and is based in deeply rooted socialization that young girls receive,” she says. “When they’re young, girls get the message that they need to seek the approval of men and one of those ways is to view other girls as competitors and adversaries. When girls enter junior high school, they see that behaving ‘dramatically’ attracts the attention and approval they were conditioned to crave.”

Low-Kramen uses the analogy of social media in the modern age – where TikTok and Instagram likes are used to boost fragile ego and dampen insecurities in the younger generation – but particularly girls. And, eventually, these girls grow into women who continue to manifest that behaviour in the workplace.

“Enter the drama queen into the office. She relies on the behaviours that have worked in the past and make her feel safe. Psychologists say that people ‘do things that serve them.’ It’s a drama queen’s way to cope, survive, and prevail.”

And who suffers the most at the hands of these drama queens? Well, it’s other women. According to The Workplace Bullying Institute, women that report being bullied at work for 80% of the time it’s by another woman – with the most common behaviours being manipulation (72%), putdowns (67%) and micromanaging (62%).

How to deal with a drama queen

As an HR leader, it’s important not to overreact and jump the gun. As with all workplace investigations, you need to act with haste but not hastily. If you suspect toxic behaviour or an employee reports an incident to you, you have a legal duty to inquire.

As Low-Kramen says, choose your moment to tell the drama queen how a specific behaviour made you or one of your employees feel. She proposes the following conversation:

“Jill, I need to talk with you about something that is weighing on my mind. When you dominated the meeting yesterday, we didn’t get to handle all the items on the agenda. Frankly, it was unnecessary, and I was exhausted by it. I am telling you this because I care about you and I want you to be successful. Your behaviour is hurting us. We have another meeting next week. Please think about it.”

Then stop talking and wait.

“After the drama queen stops crying, be patient and ready to have a calm conversation,” says Low-Kramen. “Don’t let tears stop you from speaking your mind.”

Weeding out drama queens

While remote work has gone some way in stamping out drama queens, there’s still a way to go. If you want a drama-free workplace, it begins at the recruitment stage.

Linguistic research analysis from Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, found that low-performing candidates will use more negative words in their interview – such as “aggravated” or “unhappy”. Similarly, low- performing candidates will use 103 % more absolutes – such as “impossible” and “never”.

By spotting these types of jobseekers, and erring on the side of caution when hiring, you have a better chance of avoiding potential drama queens down the line.

“Managers can communicate a zero-tolerance policy for drama which becomes an important part of the company culture,” advises Low-Kramen. “New rules can be collaborated on and communicated on the website, on written job descriptions, and at interviews.

“Candidates should be very clear about this policy through the interview process and it should be discussed openly. Managers can set clear expectations with new hires and with their current teams about the need for low drama by everyone and say why it is important to the smooth functioning of the organization.”

These rules, she says, become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy but only if the behaviours are modeled by the leaders at the top.

“Transparency and accountability by the leaders are vital in order for a staff to commit to a culture of respect and low-to-no drama. Essentially, staff need to see leaders walking the talk.”

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