The Root Cause of Workplace Drama: Lack of Clarity

No matter what the business problem, whether it’s turnover, incivility, low patient scores or managers who don’t know how to give direction, all problems have one root in common: The lack of clarity. 

Let me make a couple of distinctions about clarity: Clarity and certainty are not the same thing. Sometimes being certain keeps you from being clear because you are operating out of closed-minded assumptions instead of critical facts. Secondly, just because you have a lack of clarity does not mean you have workplace drama, but I can guarantee that, if you have drama, there is a lack of clarity at the root. This article offers three examples with lack of clarity at the root and what to do to course-correct.

Failing Managers

Your managers aren’t making good decisions. They continue to go to their vice presidents and executives to get approval. You believe this time-wasting workplace issue is due to a lack of confidence. You offer leadership training that includes a workshop on decision-making, but the problem persists.

There is a reason people do what they do, and that reason is often due to the culture and past experiences. For example, on a consulting project, I found out that the reason managers didn’t make decisions is because they lacked confidence. The reason the managers lacked confidence was because many of their decisions had been overridden by senior leaders. Therefore, the managers feared making mistakes and losing face in front of employees.

What to do: Look through old records and find examples of decisions made by managers that were overridden by a higher authority. If you see more than a couple of examples, you may need to develop a decision-making process or get some outside consulting support to get everyone on the same page.

Unsuccessful Employees

Your employees simply aren’t performing to your expectations. They are busy, but you aren’t getting the results you want. You make the assumption that they are not engaged and have bad attitudes.

Here’s the truth: Employees want to be successful. The problem is that they aren’t clear about how their manager defines success. According to Gallup, setting clear expectations may be the most foundational element. Only half of employees strongly agree that they understand what’s expected of them at work.

According to Talent Development magazine, managers are equally at a loss to explain their own jobs. If the manager isn’t clear about how to coach to success, the result is frustration and conflict.

What to do: Initiate conversations with managers and employees to understand how they view their roles. Look at the job descriptions to make sure the job descriptions align with the actual job and the employee’s understanding. Finally, invest in developing your managers how to facilitate performance conversations and coaching so that employees can be successful and managers grow into leaders.

Wrong Issues and Quick Fixes

Often the lack of clarity stems from the inability to identify the real problem. A red flag is when there is a cultural problem but the company leaders want a workshop to fix the problem. For example, I was once told by a health care system, “Our nurse managers eat their young. They are creating a culture of drama instead of living our mission of compassion.”

The executives viewed the solution as offering a strength-finding assessment followed by a workshop on conflict management.

Diving a little deeper, I discovered that the nurses work over 70 hours a week. An assessment and a workshop is going to make a tired nurse pretty cranky. Until the overwork comes to an end, the nurses don’t even have the capacity to be kind. When you try to fix cultural issues with a quick fix, you only create more chaos and mistrust. Workshops and assessments do not fix cultural problems.

What to do: Avoid the tendency to focus on a solution before clearly identifying the problem. Before offering a training program, ask yourself, what is the real problem? Don’t go into a solution. Put your focus on the results. What result do you want versus the results you are getting?

If it seems that the problem behavioral, ask these two questions: What is happening that should not be happening? How does this affect our business? Then go backwards to see what cultural issues affect behavior.

All leaders have to deal with some type of workplace drama. Whether it’s low morale, negativity, turnover or even a lawsuit, there is an answer. The answer comes by making clarity a priority. Clarity can change any situation.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018). Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at