How to Spot a Drama Addict at Work (and What to Do About It)
We’ve all known coworkers who seem to live for ramping up the angst. How should small-business owners, managers and officemates deal with them?
“Mr. Beaver, I manage an insurance brokerage in the Pacific Northwest. We have 15 employees, and ‘Frank’ was a recent hire. While excellent at his job, he is creating a never-ending sense of things being wrong and upsetting everyone over minor issues, and in addition, he is a gossip mill! The term ‘drama king’ comes to mind, as I do not know any other way to describe his behavior, taking small, non-issues and making them sound like the end of the world. He seems to love chaos. I do not know what to do or how to deal with him. Do you know of any credible resource that might help me understand and address these issues? Thanks, Albert.”
Drama Addicts Thrive on Chaos
“Your reader is describing the characteristics of a drama addict,” observes clinical psychologist Dr. Scott Lyons, author of the new release Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis & Chaos in Yourself & Others.
I had the most interesting chat with Dr. Lyons, and he provided useful insight into this real psychological problem that impacts drama addicts and all those affected by the chaos they manufacture.
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Drama Addicts Make Mountains Out of Molehills
“When we say, ‘Wait. What just happened?’ with someone who makes mountains out of molehills and reacts in ways that instantly escalate — becoming big all of a sudden, leaving us wondering, ‘Whoa! What? Where did that come from?’ or ‘What just happened?’ — this is usually a good indication there is some inclination toward an addiction to drama,” he points out.
He described common traits drama addicts exhibit:
Intensity. What seems like nothing becomes something big. Things get blown out of proportion, as if they were pouring gasoline on a fire.
Conflict creators. Very common at work where the drama addict gets into coworkers’ business, stirs things up and then backs away, making an environment that should radiate stability now feel tense. This tension is something they thrive on, often grew up with and is normal to them, even if it is disturbing to others.
“Safe” is coupled with “chaos.” Often raised in environments dominated by havoc, that’s what they seek to re-create, as it makes them feel safe. Because of turmoil in their childhood, when they exhibited signs of distress at, for example, school, teachers would pay attention to them. It’s this attention the drama addict seeks and creates on an unconscious level.
An inability to tolerate calm, stable environments. The drama addict projects their familiar ecosystem onto wherever they are. In a calm, professional workplace — which is boring to drama addicts — they tend to “spice it up” by fomenting tension through gossip, overreacting to things that do not need a high level of attention and pitting one person against another while considering themselves a victim.
A denial by the drama addict of their desire to create havoc. If challenged and told, “You are going out of your way to upset people! Why?” the drama addict — like any addict — will say something like, “Oh, I hate the drama, but the world is always against me. There is something always going on, but I am the one who has to come to the rescue of everyone else.”
They do not recognize that they were creating hostility, then coming in to rescue the situation, which gives them a sense of relief.
Signs for HR That You Are Dealing With a Drama Addict
“HR staff need to be aware of employees who cause trouble for no apparent reason,” Dr. Lyons underscores, adding, “Does it feel like they are stirring things up? Is their personal workspace a mess and chaotic? Do they tend to do a lot of gossiping and making up stories? That’s a big one! They will take a little bit of information and fill in the gaps with their paranoia — inventing stuff and believing it!”
Here’s an example: “Rudy just texted me. He’s thinking of firing me.”
“The drama addict reaches this conclusion with no factual basis and then tells people around them, ‘The boss is going to fire me.’ As they share their stress, it becomes contagious — upsetting those nearby — because our stress responses are biologically contagious. So, if I am anxious, highly activated, very exuberant in my behavior and intensity, everyone else around me starts to have a biological response that puts them in a similar, anxious state. ‘Your stress makes me stressed.’”
Danger of Gossip: Want to Know My Secret?
If you have ever wondered just how dangerous gossip can be and how it relates to drama addicts, Dr. Lyons gives us the answer:
“Dennis, if I say, ‘Let me tell you a secret,’ what do you do?”
“I pay attention.”
“That’s right, and when I tell you that secret, you are part of something. You belong, and we now share a power dynamic. We have power and belonging. That’s what gossip does. It gives us the belief that we know or have something that others do not, no matter if it is true or not — and provides the drama addict a false sense of meaning, belonging, connection, relationship — we are the ‘in group.’ They are the ‘out group’ because we know something they don’t.
“So, by creating gossip, the drama addict becomes a danger to the organization, and management needs to be aware of how destructive this can be.”
So, how can HR or a manager deal with that mentality? First, managers, company owners and family members need to avoid being drawn into the drama. Here are some tips recommended by Dr. Lyons:
- In the moment, discuss with the drama addict that they appear to be making the task more difficult than it really is and ask, “How can I help?”
- Encourage them to take breaks — even go for a walk with them to change the environment and slow down.
- Have an HR person who is skilled in discussing workplace challenges meet with them and elicit things that they would like to discuss so they feel paid attention to.
- Model efficiency for employees (and we mean the drama addicts) who are overcomplicating tasks.
- Suggest that employees — all who wish to, so you are not singling out this one person — keep journals for what is going well at work, thereby focusing on the positive. You could call it “a work gratitude journal.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.
This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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