Learning to Shift Workplace Drama to Workplace Empowerment

Kay Peterson

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.