08/19/2010 01:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Don't Be the JetBlue Flight Attendant: How to Avoid Workplace Drama (VIDEO)

OK, I'm bored with the frazzled flight attendant story.

I was intrigued at first. I fly a lot, and I make my living studying work environments. Plus, the whole thing had some absurd entertainment value too. It's like the old expression about a train wreck: you don't want to see it but you can't look away.

I'm ready to look away. The guy lost his cool, did something dumb, and probably faces legal consequences. It happens often and I don't think it's much of a story. But given the recent chatter in the media -- including, disturbingly, the notion that the former flight attendant may end up hosting a reality TV program -- I seem to be the only one who feels that way.

You'd think the story would have already faded. The guy walked away from a steady job over what seemed to amount to a bad day at the office. It's not as though steady jobs are easy to come by in this economy. So why didn't we as a society glance at this incident, mutter "that was dumb" under our breath, and move on?

It's the drama.

Drama makes otherwise boring stories compelling. If the man had tendered his resignation on paper that evening, it wouldn't have made the news. But there was an altercation, a heated exchange, an impassioned exit. This is the stuff good TV is made of.

Unfortunately, it's not the stuff good workplaces are made of. When we allow too much drama to creep off the screen and into our work, we start to have problems. We start to have people crying over the office supply order. We start to have people whispering about clandestine takeovers, and plotting to keep control of the break room cleaning schedule. And we start to have people in conference rooms, hallways -- and, apparently, on planes -- yelling at each other over things like budgets, lunch breaks and carry-on baggage. In short, we start to have situations in which the emotional intensity is mismatched to the actual event.

I'm sure you've been in a situation like this. In fact -- be honest -- I bet you've been a contributor on occasion. I know I have. Drama is part of the human condition, and we all get caught up in it once in awhile.

Like me, you've probably also found yourself wondering how to get out of it.

Stop the Drama and Do the Work
If you find yourself caught in workplace drama -- real, uncomfortable, unproductive drama, not the sexy and exciting stuff you see on TV -- it can be difficult to escape. The more the intensity increases, the more people get caught up in it, until soon the drama is the event, and the original point of what you were trying to accomplish is lost.

If you've got an interest in recovering that original point, here are three tips:

  • Don't let anyone play the victim. If a coworker tells you that it is all someone else's fault, that she is being overpowered or unfairly treated, don't say "poor you." Acknowledge the problem as objectively as possible, and then ask the coworker what she plans to do about it. Try to enter into a discussion of options that put your coworker back into the driver's seat. If you find yourself playing the victim, ask yourself what your options are, and focus on the control you do have.
  • Don't let anyone play the persecutor. If a coworker tells you that she is going to "show someone else who's boss," or overpower or take advantage of another person, don't grant silent acceptance. Ask the coworker what might be driving the behavior of that other person, and get her to imagine some valid, acceptable reasons for it. If you find yourself playing the persecutor, take pains to seek reasons for the seemingly difficult behavior of others, rather than going on the attack.
  • Don't let anyone play the rescuer. If a coworker comes to you with plans to save the day, rescue the masses, or fix things broken by others, don't encourage comic bookish heroic behavior. Instead, steer the conversation toward how "those poor people" might save themselves, and toward whether they, in fact, need saving at all. If you find yourself inclined toward staging a rescue yourself, try to remember that the best solutions come from the ones who need them, not via infliction from a third party.

One word of warning: If you're trying to stage a spectacularly dramatic and newsworthy event, get arrested, and have your name kicked around in the media for a month or so while you wait on TV deals and court sentences, this might not be good advice. But for the rest of us, trying to do something useful at work without too much strife, hopefully this will help.