How to Rise Above Office Drama Without Damaging Your Relationships with Your Coworkers

No office is drama-free, but these tips can help.
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No office is drama-free, but these tips can help.

Did you know that the average American spends 8.7 hours per day at work? That’s 43.5 hours a week, 174 hours a month, 2,088 hours per year . . . you get the picture. We spend a lot of time at work and a lot of time with coworkers. Sometimes, this is great. Maybe you and your coworkers are a tight-knit bunch. Other times, this togetherness might be problematic.

Unfortunately, no office is drama-free, no matter how chill everyone may seem. Your challenge is to rise above the office drama while preserving your relationships with your coworkers. Here are a few expert-recommended tips for staying out of the fray in your workplace.

01. Avoid the instigators.

There is one person in every office with the Midas touch of confrontation and conflict. Everywhere they are, drama is, too. They’ll stop by your cubicle to complain about the boss and lament that the world is against them and that no one truly realizes how much work they put in. The more time you spend with a drama instigator, the more you’ll get the impression—mistakenly—that you should be as equally indignant as they are. What an exhausting way to spend your day.

Linda Swindling, JD, CSP, conducted a survey for her book, Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers, and found that 78 percent of her survey participants spent three to six hours a week listening to complainers. That’s about an hour every day of the workweek! To avoid being held prisoner by the coffee machine and forced to listen to complaints, try to limit your interaction with the drama instigator in your office. A polite but firm, “I’d love to talk, but I have a mountain of work that’s calling my name,” is a tactful way to exit from the one-sided conversation.

02. Don’t take sides.

Whether you are at happy hour with a few trusted coworkers or taking your coffee in the break room, avoid taking sides when the conversation turns to the latest office gossip. You might assume that your conversation is confidential, but, unfortunately, you can never be sure. In these situations, I always think to channel Julie Andrews’ character Queen Clarisse in the Princess Diaries. She advises her granddaughter that a diplomatic answer is “polite but vague.”

Making statements about what you think is best is fine, but be careful to keep from passing judgment on the specific person or situation at hand. For example, you’re typing away when a coworker stops by your desk to whisper, “Wasn’t Christine’s presentation awful? I couldn’t believe how terrible it was.” Even if you agree, try to say something along the lines of, “She seems really overwhelmed. I think she has a lot going on.” Or, if you can’t think of a diplomatic way to respond, just change the subject.

03. Be discreet.

Remember when you were a child, and the adults in your life were always telling you, “If you wouldn’t say it to that person’s face, don’t say it at all”? Well, the same applies to the corporate jungle. Be discreet when giving your opinions of coworkers and bosses. What you say may come back to bite you. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that individuals who gossip, particularly individuals who are very negative, are viewed as less likable than those who do not gossip. Who wants to be that person?

Being discreet also means steering clear of the rumor mill. You might be bursting at the seams because you overheard some big office news, but is it yours to share? In one office I worked at, several organizations shared the same space, and I often heard coworkers from another company gossiping about colleagues, complaining about their work ethic. I felt so awkward trying to work in my office (and frantically turning up the volume on my Pandora station) while their voices filtered right through the closed door. I learned much more than I ever wanted to about the social dynamics at that office. So think twice before you share information with your coworkers. You never know who could be listening.

04. Deal directly.

What happens if you’ve unwillingly been tossed in the office-drama arena? Perhaps someone’s blamed you for an error in your team’s latest report. Maybe you felt that someone sabotaged your work by not supplying needed data or missing a deadline. While you might be tempted to complain to your coworkers about how this person’s behavior bothered you, take a deep breath, and, depending on how your office is structured, schedule a meeting with the offending coworker. Ideally, meeting with your offending coworker first gives him or her the chance to address the behavior, especially before you escalate to your boss or HR. The Harvard Business Review recommends planning out what you want to say in advance, trying to understand your coworker’s perspective, and keeping the conversation at a slow, calm pace to avoid a heated discussion.

Just because office drama is an unfortunate reality in the workplace doesn’t mean that you have to allow it to drain your energy and take up your valuable productivity time. Limiting your interactions with drama instigators to work-only conversations and limiting your time together will help you to keep from being inadvertently dragged into the vortex. Focus on keeping the conversation positive, and your coworkers will thank you for being a drama-free member of the team.

Photo Credit: Emilie Iggiotti