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Getting stuck in the mud

During droughts, the water recedes dramatically in Horsetooth Reservoir. As the shoreline shifts, dense mud is exposed. It's the kind of mud a child loves to play in.

We were at the Reservoir during such a time, picnicking with friends, when I promised my daughter we would go down by the water. The closer we got to the shoreline, the muddier the conditions became. My suggestions to turn around were not embraced. She was eager to continue prowling in the earthy goodness.

With each step, we sunk deeper into mud. Eventually, my daughter got stuck. As I helped her out, she screamed "My shoe, my shoe!"

Despite the fact that the mud had swallowed her shoe up, she was determined to continue playing in it. And so she did.

The appeal of playing in the mud (and getting stuck) reminds me of dealing with other people's drama.

As a leadership development coach, I am often entrusted with stories of conflict at work. What feels like unnecessary drama to many is a common energy drain. Yet, like the mud, people are drawn to it and prone to getting stuck. This is especially problematic for those that complain about the drama in the first place.

I often find this an interesting point of tension. Take for example one team I worked with (names changed to protect the innocent). Tanya was tired of working with Anne because of "her drama." Anne had a reputation for being difficult to work with, so team members were quick to agree with Tanya's frustrations. Meanwhile, Tanya fixated on her difficulties working with Anne, finding fault with everything she did. Tanya attributed most problems she encountered to Anne with self-righteous indignation.

Tanya was stuck in the mud. And she was dragging others in there with her. She justified her behavior as "doing the right thing." But, ironically, she became a source of toxicity. Tanya's combative way of dealing with the situation made it near impossible for Anne (who had become the resident scapegoat despite her efforts to learn and grow) to gel with the rest of the team. That is until leadership stepped up and called Tanya into a conversation about her contributions to the problems.

Figuring out healthy ways to navigate tensions without getting stuck in the mud is a leadership essential. Rising above the fray starts with understanding the nature of such dynamics.

The energy of drama is intoxicating. People are quick to get swept up in the moment. Suddenly, what was one co-worker's inner drama becomes everyone's problem. And that tends to fire people up, which feels gratifying. In such situations, people have conflated getting worked up with doing something productive.

Comments like, "How could she..." Or "The nerve..." Or "He just doesn't care..." are like a siren song pulling everyone deeper into the mud.

This is the space where problems fester. Where misunderstandings grow exponentially bigger. Where trust erodes and fear takes root. Because of the energy of drama, the focus is less about solving the problem at hand and more about being right or winning.

It's gratifying to have colleagues agree with you. Indignation over other people's drama at work is fueled when we build ourselves echo chambers. People go further into the muck, getting stuck in the mud. Just like my daughter did when she lost her shoe. Only what's lost in these moments is so much greater than a shoe. It's our integrity.

Tanya's toxic behavior went against everything she valued. But since she didn't know any other way to handle the situation, she let herself get stuck in the mud. At the same time, she pulled as many people in around her as she could. After all, misery likes company.

When that happens, it's leadership's job to put out a lifeline. Of course, that only works if the people who are stuck in the mud are willing to grab ahold of it to lift themselves out.

Luckily, in this instance, both Tanya and Anne were willing to accept the help. The leaders provided what was needed to address the underlying concerns that had caused things to get so out of hand in the first place. The essence of which was to create a space that honored their voices without feeding the drama so everyone could rise above it.

Once Tanya and Anne got out of the mud, the rest of the team followed.

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