How to fix employee drama at your agency

How to fix employee drama at your agency
Written by: Karl Sakas

Don’t like employee drama at work? You’re not the only one! In a survey of agency owners, I asked what they liked least about running an agency. The top two answers: “admin work” and “drama.”

Drama can seem exciting at first—something juicy is happening—but excessive drama hurts morale, productivity, and profits. And things only get worse if you let it fester.

A friend previously supervised 20 admin staff members at a healthcare practice. Every week, she’d have employee drama—car trouble, sick family members, and so on. With 20 people, it’s rare to have a week where there’s not drama.

“More employees = more drama” applies to your number of direct reports, your agency-wide headcount, and your percentage of Wet Twine employees. As you scale up, employee drama tends to grow, too—unless you make some important changes.

Can you ever eliminate 100% of employee drama? No, not until we have robot employees. Agencies are a people-based business—your employees are people, and so are [most of] your clients.

The real-world issue is how much drama you’ll have. For solutions, read on! (And check out my Agency Leadership Intensive.)

Why “More employees = More drama”

In my experience, more employees = more drama. Why? When you throw people together, things get complicated. And “more people” tends to mean “more complicated”… and thus “more drama.”

Is that relationship always the case? No. But in my consulting and coaching, I see it a lot, across agency after agency.

Drama is relative; be sure you demonstrate empathy when otherwise non-dramatic people have personal problems. That doesn’t mean letting people slide on performance—but if they were your own personal problems, you wouldn’t see them as “drama.”

What’s your actionable here, as an agency leader? Pause before you hire more people—or before you assign employees to an inexperienced manager.

What causes employee drama?

To echo the Anna Karenina principle, every dysfunctional agency is dysfunctional in its own way. That said… here are common sources of employee drama:

  1. Employees see favoritism in work assignments, leading to resentment between team members.
  2. There’s a leadership vacuum—and some employees don’t like that people stepped in to run things, while others resent that those informal leaders have grabbed power.
  3. Employees have poor boundaries between personal and professional life.
  4. Drama-prone employees stir up problems, enlisting coworkers in thinking things are worse than they are.
  5. Employees feel under-appreciated, or believe that management doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
  6. Employees are a poor culture fit, or employees interpret colleagues’ intentions as malicious.
  7. Reluctant employees” don’t want to do the job you expect them to do.
  8. Employees aren’t clear about Swim Lanes, leading to misunderstandings, duplicate work, or work falling through the cracks.
  9. Managers fail to address problems promptly, or expect employees to solve problems that are beyond a non-manager’s power to fix.

Let’s look at how you can fix this problem at your agency.

How to fix the “employee drama” problem

This won’t be an overnight fix, but these tips will help you reduce employee drama.

  1. Ask the right interview questions to find people who handle drama constructively. For instance: “Tell me about a time a coworker misunderstood your intentions.”
  2. Define employee “Swim Lanes,” around who “owns” what. This helps reduce confusion and conflicts; creating a RACI chart can help you implement this.
  3. Limit the number of each manager’s direct reports. The bigger your “span of control,” the more drama you’re going to get. (The ideal is 5-7 direct reports.)
  4. Adjust your team structure as you grow. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; certain changes are common at certain headcounts. This typically includes adding middle managers and then C-level leaders.
  5. Consider the drama implications before you hire more people. How might current team members perceive the changes? How can you enlist people in supporting the changes? Is it time to change your team structure?
  6. Train and coach your inexperienced managers. Give new managers the right tools to succeed, so they focus on things like addressing employee drama early. My book Made to Lead is a good place to start, and my Agency Leadership Intensive can help you up-level further.
  7. Model low-drama behavior yourself as a leader. This includes choosing not to spread gossip, asking (or requiring) employees to talk to each other directly when you observe a miscommunication, and encouraging people to start by assuming their coworkers are acting with the best of intentions.

You likely won’t eliminate drama completely—your employees and contractors are human, after all. But you’ll see better results when you’re intentional about hiring, managing, and leading your team.

If you’re considering a leadership development program, check out my Agency Leadership Intensive. Either way, good luck!

Question: How do you handle employee drama at your agency?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

Are you reaching your full potential as an agency leader?

Growing as a better leader takes hard work and practice. But you don’t have to do it alone! During the Agency Leadership Intensive, you’ll join an exclusive yet friendly cohort—agency owners and executives getting expert advice and sharing accountability to run successful agencies.

The program can help you cut through the frustration and loneliness at the top—to help you and your team make smarter decisions for smoother growth.