You will experience drama in your business.
That’s a given. Any place where you have a group of people working towards something together in a stressful environment, issues arise.
The mark of a well-managed team is not avoiding drama but learning how to mitigate the negative effects. Poorly managed drama leads to distrust, a lack of investment from team members, and additional resources and energy being spent on mitigating internal issues instead of focusing on growing the product and team.
For those caught in the fray, the temptation is to either immediately escalate by going to higher-ups (or worse, public) or to play a game of don’t-ask, don’t-tell.
With few exceptions (those few being serious cases of abuse), neither is the right approach. A policy of constant escalation at times of drama gives the company a feeling of low morale and being a place that is “dramatic.” A policy of don’t-ask, don’t-tell drives serious problems and failures of communication underground and the company develops an internal reputation for being a toxic work environment.
Neither is a good outcome.
What’s a healthy team to do?
A Cue from Religious Drama Management
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel writes that all good startups are like cults. They have a secret that they strongly believe about the world and are tightly-knit enough to strive after that secret. They build a conspiracy.
The key to cult-like conspiracy is alignment of expectations and communication. Poor communication leads to poor execution. Poor execution leads to misaligned expectations. Misaligned expectations lead to resentment and frustration and the conspiracy is blown open as members roll in and out.
The leaders of early Christianity — known as a cult in its day and arguably the world’s most successful religious conspiracy — understood this well. Christ prescribed communication standards to iron out drama quickly — or remove the dramatic from the Church before they could cause more problems.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ commands the disciples to treat those who sin against other members of the Church, in a specific manner:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew 18:15–17 (ESV Translation)
There’s a very specific progression of drama-mitigation built into this commandment. This is not simply, “talk to somebody if they rile up drama and problems in your group.”
Rather, it looks more like this:
If there’s drama:
Then speak to the offender 1-on-1 and make clear what he has done.
If that doesn’t resolve the drama:
Then bring peers to validate the supposed drama between you and the offender (this requirement for two-three witnesses actually comes from Deuteronomy 19:15).
If that doesn’t resolve the drama:
Then bring the offender in front of the organization and look to resolve the drama there.
If that doesnt’ resolve the drama:
Then fire the offender.
This isn’t obscure religious law but rather a crash-course in strong norm enforcement. Resentment is the core emotion driving drama. Societies (and micro-societies, like startups) develop norms in order to mitigate feelings like resentment. Resentment itself comes from a feeling that expectations have been violated.
Making explicit the expectation that drama will be rooted out in a public forum makes it harder for that drama to take root in the organization. It imposes a stronger cost on instigating drama in the first place. If you know that you will be confronted for your gossip, should it be found out, you’re less likely to engage in it (or more likely to go above and beyond to keep it undercover, at which point most gossip just isn’t worth it).
Founders & Managers as Law-Givers
Of course, if you had Talmudic law, prophets, and a Messiah to lay down the rules for how you govern yourselves in your company, it might be a little easier to mitigate drama (although the history of early Christianity was not devoid of drama itself).
As the leader of your company — or a leader in the company like a manager — you have a unique opportunity to lay down the law. Sin is missing the target that is laid out in front of you. All vice is. Whether it is in your personal life or professional life, there are targets and expectations of what right behavior looks like. Aristotle, early in his Nicomachean Ethics lectures, defines successful behavior as that which hits the end for which any action struggles.
You don’t market to get clicks. You get clicks to get new customers and to get new sales and to drive more revenue and, ultimately, profit. Even in drama, the medium is not the end. People gossip to entertain themselves, not to create drama.
As the leader of your company, you have the right to set the standards of right action for your team. Make the targets clear so that when your colleagues miss, they may be corrected. Do not leave room for interpretation where you believe there to be none. This is not to be strict or overbearing — it is to help guide your team to right action and to the virtue that lends the company to long-term success.
h/t to Joshua D Fischer for help and clarification on Biblical references.