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36th National Oncology Conference Opener: "How To's" for Deconstructing Team Drama

November 1, 2019
ACCC 36th National Oncology Conference opening speaker, Joe Mull, MEd, CSP, had an enthusiastic audience for his “No More Team Drama” kick-off presentation on Thursday, Oct. 31, in Orlando.  Mull deconstructed team drama—the debilitating sturm und drang—that disrupts the workplace, sinks morale, and drains productivity.

Addressing team drama is well worth the effort, Mull emphasized. Creating a work environment where behaviors that fuel drama happen less often can yield a happier staff, greater patient satisfaction, and improve outcomes. In our healthcare environment where burnout and staffing shortages are national concerns, increasing attention is being given to the workplace culture and environment. 

Transforming the healthcare workplace culture has become a national priority and a focus of the National Academy of Medicine and many healthcare provider organizations, including ACCC, in response to rising rates of clinician and workforce burnout.

Mull level-set the conversation by defining team drama and how it often erodes the workplace environment. Team drama encompasses interpersonal actions, interactions, reactions harmful to team morale in the workplace, he said. When he asked attendees to name some things that fuel team drama, he didn’t have to ask twice: Cattiness, passive aggressiveness, micro-aggression, pot-stirring, backstabbing, micro-managing, passive aggressive, "My way or the highway," triangulation. . . the list goes on.

“Team drama shows itself in very subtle behavior common on most teams,” Mull said, “. . . the eye roll followed by a sigh, the ‘meeting’ after the meeting” where some team members validate each other’s perceptions of the poor behaviors and intention of other staff.

A basic driver of team drama is a person’s reaction to their perception of how they were treated by someone else, Mull told attendees. Put in simple terms, our human brains are basically hardwired to believe that we are really good people doing a really good job every day (as known as “illusory superiority bias”).  But we’re not hardwired to make the same assumption about others. In fact, we tend to assume the best in ourselves but the worst in others (known as a "fundamental attribution error”), he said. Driving the point home, Mull quoted Stephen Covey: “We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge everyone else by their behavior.”

“We carry this bias with us,” Mull added, illustrating with all-too-relatable examples from every day life: how we behave in response to the stories we tell ourselves about the drivers who cut us off in traffic, or the colleague who is late for work or who we perceive as less productive than ourselves.

A side effect of this is erosion of empathy, Mull said.  

Given these pre-programmed patterns, what can be done to neutralize team drama? Mull suggests a four pronged-approach: Courtesy, Comaradarie, Conflict, Cause.

Courtesy and respect establish an no-drama framework. To be effective, leaders have to define what these terms mean by having “specific conversations about what behaviors are expected and what behaviors are not accepted and have no place in the workplace,” Mull said. One of the biggest obstacles to courtesy and respect in the workplace is the “it’s not me, it’s them” response.

Camaraderie, or closeness among the team, helps staff get to know each other as individuals (the opposite of the depersonalization of the other drivers in traffic). As team members begin to know each other as people, making connections through finding some common ground, the tendency is to give that other individual the benefit of the doubt. Workplace events that provide opportunities to find things in common such as potlucks and birthday celebrations are better strategies than happy hours or “jeans days,” he said.

Conflict. It's not synonymous with drama. In fact, conflict can be productive and lead to consensus if the team can move toward it in a healthy way, Mull told attendees. The problems crop up when conflict leads to triangulation. He suggests disrupting this predictable, unproductive pattern with two behaviors: assume good intent (ask yourself what would make a good person act this way?) and going to the source rather than a second party for validation.

Cause. Teams that have a purpose that they perceive as worth their efforts are more likely to rise above the noise and conflict fueling team drama, said Mull. Leaders can help articulate this by becoming better storytellers, sharing with their teams the difference their work makes in the lives of others. “What’s your cause? How are you telling stories to your team?”

Stay tuned for more "how to" transformative strategies from ACCC's National Oncology Conference.

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