Learning to Shift Workplace Drama to Workplace Empowerment

We at the Insti­tute for Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing are involved in help­ing indi­vid­u­als, teams, and orga­ni­za­tions learn how to learn. Nat­u­ral­ly, we are curi­ous about what it takes to cre­ate the space and envi­ron­ment that fos­ters learn­ing and development.

In order to learn, we know that we need to feel safe enough to dis­cuss and even dis­agree about the top­ic, and to act in the face of uncer­tain­ty. That is dif­fi­cult when many group inter­ac­tions are steeped in inter­per­son­al dra­ma where pow­er is mis­used and behav­iors range from bul­ly­ing and belit­tling to fawn­ing and pol­i­tick­ing. In the face of this dra­ma, some peo­ple avoid engag­ing at all; oth­ers become reac­tive them­selves. In either case, there is no new learning.

David Emer­ald, an expert in the caus­es of work­place dra­ma, reports the neg­a­tive behav­iors of dra­ma inflict a tremen­dous cost to indi­vid­u­als through upset, stress and dis­en­gage­ment. It may sur­prise you to learn of its stag­ger­ing costs to busi­ness. Gallup esti­mates that neg­a­tive behav­iors in the work­place cost US busi­ness over $500 bil­lion in lost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty annu­al­ly. Oth­er research esti­mates that man­agers may spend 40% of their time deal­ing with con­flict and dra­ma. Just as busi­ness­es are find­ing it essen­tial to cre­ate learn­ing orga­ni­za­tions, man­agers are spend­ing up to two days a week deal­ing with defen­sive­ness and reac­tiv­i­ty that pre­cludes learning.

In his new book, 3 Vital Ques­tions: Trans­form­ing Work­place Dra­ma, David Emer­ald describes what caus­es this dra­ma and how we can elim­i­nate it. He has cre­at­ed an under­stand­able, prac­ti­cal mod­el to help us move from an implic­it, reac­tive way of relat­ing with dra­ma to an empow­ered, cre­ative way of learn­ing. Most peo­ple find it a life-alter­ing shift.

David’s anti­dote to dra­ma is ask­ing these 3 Vital Ques­tions to indi­vid­u­als, teams and organizations:

  1. Where are you putting your focus? If you are focus­ing on prob­lems, you are scan­ning for what is wrong and dis­cour­ag­ing suc­cess. If you are focus­ing on desired out­comes, you are con­nect­ing to pur­pose and tap­ping people’s passion.
  2. How are you relat­ing? If you are relat­ing from a prob­lem ori­en­ta­tion, you may be trig­ger­ing or per­pet­u­at­ing dra­ma. If you are relat­ing from an out­come ori­en­ta­tion, you find ways to empow­er oth­ers to learn, devel­op, and create.
  3. What actions are you tak­ing? If prob­lems alone are the focus, you are prob­a­bly react­ing. If you have an out­come in mind, you are cre­at­ing and tak­ing gen­er­a­tive action, even if solv­ing some prob­lems may be necessary.

The prob­lem ori­en­ta­tion sets the stage for dra­ma to sneak into any sit­u­a­tion; we all are vul­ner­a­ble to this approach. Once we begin relat­ing with dra­ma, it takes con­scious focus and inten­tion­al action through learn­ing to shift to empow­er­ment. David intro­duces the “dread­ed dra­ma tri­an­gle” (aka, the Karp­man Dra­ma Tri­an­gle) roles of the Vic­tim, Per­se­cu­tor, and Res­cuer; then offers an alter­na­tive way of relat­ing by flip­ping dra­ma roles into the empow­er­ing roles of Cre­ator, Chal­lenger, and Coach. The aware­ness of the 3 Vital Ques­tions® men­tal mod­el lays the foun­da­tion to rec­og­nize when dra­ma is present and how to make the shift to empow­er­ment possible.

How can the expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing cycle of Expe­ri­enc­ing, Reflect­ing, Think­ing, and Act­ing sup­port the shift from dra­ma to empow­er­ment using the 3 Vital Ques­tions mod­el? Con­sid­er each step:

Expe­ri­enc­ing. Ground and cen­ter your­self to ful­ly expe­ri­ence the present moment. Rec­og­nize when you are trig­gered to react with dra­ma rather than to cre­ate with empow­er­ment. What do you feel when you empow­er oth­ers and they empow­er you? If you feel over­whelm or take things per­son­al­ly, you may be overus­ing Experiencing.
Reflect­ing. Pause to con­nect your expe­ri­ence with the ideas of the 3 Vital Ques­tions mod­el. Zoom out to wit­ness the sit­u­a­tion from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. What is your mind­set? What are you observ­ing in oth­ers? If you are rumi­nat­ing instead of mov­ing to coura­geous action, you may be overus­ing Reflecting.
Think­ing. Ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er the con­cepts of the 3 Vital Ques­tions mod­el as you detach from any emo­tion­al upset. Com­pare the ide­al mod­el to your objec­tive obser­va­tions to reach con­clu­sions. In what ways can these ideas inform your action? Can you gen­er­al­ize the sit­u­a­tion to cre­ate a plan? If you are sim­ply scan­ning for prob­lems or detach­ing from relat­ing to oth­ers alto­geth­er, you may be overus­ing Thinking.
Act­ing. Take one “baby step” that may shift the sit­u­a­tion from dra­ma to empow­er­ment. If you are in the role of a Vic­tim who reacts from pow­er­less­ness, shift to the Cre­ator by mak­ing one inten­tion­al choice. If you are in the role of Res­cuer who tells oth­ers what to do as if they are inca­pable, shift to a Coach role by ask­ing ques­tions. If you are in the role of a Per­se­cu­tor who needs to look good or belit­tle oth­ers, shift to a truth telling Chal­lenger to act in ser­vice of learn­ing. If you are sim­ply react­ing with­out con­sid­er­ing the impact of your actions, you may be overus­ing Acting.

A lack of dra­ma con­tributes to the psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty required for learn­ing; inno­va­tion, cre­ativ­i­ty, and devel­op­ment result from empow­er­ing your­self and oth­ers with an out­come focus. Orga­ni­za­tions are achiev­ing mea­sur­able results from using this method. To hear what you and your team might achieve with two extra dra­ma-free days per week, lis­ten to an inter­view with David Emer­ald here.