Dealing with drama: how to cancel the daily soap opera and get your team back to work

Paul Edwards discusses how to regain control of your practice

1200x600_CEDRHave you ever spent a weekday afternoon at home, flipped through the daytime soap lineup on network television, and suddenly thought to yourself, Why does all this melodrama seem so familiar?
Maybe you’ve even thought up a few modified program titles to describe what goes on from day to day in your practice. I’m pretty sure I could picture the standard plots for soap operas such as, “All My Employees,” “Schedules of Our Lives,” “The Young and the Whining,” and everybody’s favorite, “The Bold and the…Unbelievable.”
After watching such shows play out in the office year after year, many of us have come to feel that workplace drama is just a fact of office life. You’re accustomed to the blowups, the turmoil, the whining, and resistance. You might even dread going to work because each interaction feels like your energy is being sucked down an endless vortex. And somehow the same few people always seem to be behind it all, directing the play, and draining your enthusiasm, your optimism, and your vitality with their constant complaints, negativity, and trouble-stirring gossip.
But is workplace drama really inevitable, or is that exactly what the “Drama Kings” and “Queens” on our teams want us to believe? I’m here to tell you that it is possible to regain control in your practice and put everybody back to work. Here’s how to understand your own office cast a whole lot better, so you can steal their spotlights and get them to play the role you need.

The starring roles

“Assisting chairside, we have Katie, hygienist and world-class manipulator! On phones, Trent, the hopeless gossip. Handling billing is Tanya Tattletale …”
You are probably very familiar with the long-term destructive effects of gossipy, whiny, attention-seeking, controlling, negative, or otherwise obstructive employees on your team. And once you’ve got more than one, watch out — they’ve got you out-numbered, and they start to take control.
Before we talk about what on earth your melodramatic employees are actually after, let’s look at the typical cast members, and what management techniques work best with each one. I like the “complainer” categories used by Linda Swindling in her 2013 book, Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers: How to Negotiate Work Drama to Get More Done.
You may not have all of these types right now, and obviously these are generalizations, while every employee is an individual. Overall, though, it’s useful to recognize these drama-prone employee types when you come across them. Like most things, management is easier when you know where to start!

Prima Donnas

Prima Donnas love the limelight, just as you’d expect. They seek attention and are great at relationships. They will use their charm to get other management personnel on their side if you don’t get there first. Above all, don’t get caught up in the drama that surrounds these employees, and avoid putting them on the spot — they use spotlights to their advantage.
How to handle Prima Donnas
Asking them to “tone it down” or “be reasonable” does not work. Instead, acknowledge the good skills or behaviors you like, and publicize any new goals you set with them. Prima Donnas don’t like to lose face, so you may find they’ll rise to the occasion.

Whiners

Whiners are easily recognizable. These employees need to vent and whine and sigh about everything. They may be whining about how hard they work, or how nobody else works hard enough. Maybe they’re whining about how they always have to do something, or how they never get to do a particular thing.
How to handle Whiners
To deal with Whiners effectively, listen sympathetically to an extent, without judging their reaction. Do not get pulled into their issues or commiserate with them. Once they’ve had their chance to complain, re-
direct their focus by asking them for solutions.

Complicators

Complicators are always there to point out obstacles or throw a roadblock in the way of the project you’re excited about. They say things like, “That won’t work,” “We tried that before,” or “It’s more complicated than that.” Trying to change their minds, or asking them to have a positive attitude and be team players, doesn’t work with these employees.
How to handle Complicators
Change is hard for Complicators, and you may have to slow down your efforts to get them to accept it. Try to get them to slowly upgrade rather than change. Enlist their help and acknowledge their efforts, both publically and privately.

Controllers

Controllers, otherwise known as bullies, are vying for power. They may say things that are downright rude, such as “What’s your point?” or “I don’t have time for this.” If they are in a position of some power, their “requests” may be intimidating: “Don’t make excuses — just get it done,” or “Do it right this time.”
How to handle Controllers
Be assertive with these employees, and stand your ground with confidence. Don’t get defensive, antagonize them, or finger-point. Give them narrow options, and deliver on your warnings and promises.

Toxics

Toxics are master manipulators, and they don’t necessarily care whether their behavior is right or wrong. Don’t bother trying to show them the negative impact of their actions — they might enjoy seeing it. Instead, minimize their harm, and get them out as soon as possible.
How to handle Toxics
Get help from an HR expert. Protect yourself by documenting EVERYTHING. Use stealth and micromanagement if you have to. An overall culture of transparency, candor, and sound management policies is toxic to Toxics!

Stirring the pot

So now that we know who the key players in a typical office soap opera are, what are they really after?
The exact aims will vary, and not all employees are equally conscious of their own motivations. However, here are some of the most common goals of those who exhibit negative or obstructive behavior:

  1. Attention and recognition, whether from you or the rest of the team.
  2. Preventing change by generating drama, fear, or obstacles.
  3. Destabilizing relationships within the practice, so management or team members cannot form alliances that will threaten them.
  4. Undermining praise or advancement that would otherwise be given to someone else.
  5. Grasping at power or control and protecting what they feel is their work “territory.”

Note that, aside from the desires for attention and power, most of these other goals are negative in nature. You know the dramatic office environment is bad for your practice when your employees are focusing their energies on preventing, undermining, and destabilizing your team and your business.
Again, not all of your drama-prone employees are consciously undermining the center or your authority — some may be good workers when managed effectively. But others are truly Toxic, so be careful.

From symptoms to cures

You’ve already seen the effects of drama run rampant, and now you have a better understanding of what tactics to use with each character in the cast. But where do you start the healing process?
First, think about which employees seem to be most involved in your practice’s drama club. Who has an ongoing behavior or performance issue that’s stressing you out or creating an atmosphere of drama or negativity? This issue could be anything from chronic excuse-o-rama, to rude or abrupt comments when dealing with patients, to backbiting or backstabbing among your team. (And more!)
Once you’ve identified the major players, figure out what type of complainer or energy drainer each problem employee is most likely to be. Even if the category isn’t an exact match, picking the closest fit will give you some new tactics to try. Then plan your next conversation or interaction with that individual accordingly.
When dealing with each employee type, remember that you are talking to a complex person who has multiple motivations and a collection of good and not-so-helpful traits. Your billing specialist Cindy may be a “Complicator” within your office environment, but that is not all she is, and it is not how she thinks of herself. It’s just a place for you to start, so you can adapt your communication style and thereby manage her more effectively. Use tact as you try the techniques listed previously.
During all coaching interactions, make it clear to the employee what the issue is and what impact the issue is having. Express confidence that the employee has good intentions, and that you know they will be able to correct the problem. Then make a specific request for improvement. Setting a specific, measurable goal makes the employee responsible for his/her own self-correction.
In cases where goals are not being met, document the results. Talk with an HR expert when termination begins to seem likely, so you can take steps toward letting the employees go when you need to. Sometimes your best course of action is to cut your losses and hire better next time. For employees who are doing well and succeeding at the goals you set together, let them know that you appreciate their efforts — it’ll improve your relationship and make the coaching more likely to stick.
Above all, make it clear in your own actions and management style that you care about fostering a positive, supportive, and rewarding work environment. With the right tactics and HR practices supporting you, the vast majority of the team will follow your lead.

Paul Edwards is the CEO and Co-founder of CEDR HR Solutions (www.cedrsolutions.com), which provides individually customized employee handbooks and HR solutions to dental offices of all sizes across the United States. He has over 25 years of experience as a manager and owner and specializes in helping dental offices solve employee issues. Paul is a featured writer for The Profitable Dentist, Dental Economics, and other publications, and speaks at employment education seminars, conferences, and CE courses across the country. He can be reached at pauledwards@cedrsolutions.com or 866-414-6056.

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