Distractions as a Cover-up


Many years ago, I worked in a high school special education department, and I was assigned to work one-to-one with one of the funniest young students I had ever met. He could not only keep me laughing and on my toes with his quick wit and never-ending ideas for how to make a buck, but he also kept his classmates laughing and, well, distracted.

He was in a small class of students labeled with behavioral challenges because, at a moment’s notice, he could turn a quiet classroom full of attentive students into a three-ring circus. As I got to know him, I noticed a pattern to his escalations…

Every time he was asked to read aloud or to publicly answer a question that required reading, he turned into a comedian, a performer. Sometimes he even displayed anger and indignation toward another student who he perceived had wronged him, creating an entirely different type of drama. Regardless, he could quickly get the entire class, as well as the teacher, off-track and focused on behaviors instead of teaching and learning.

My experience in working with this young man taught me far more than I ever taught him. One of the biggest Ahas was how when humans – youth or adults – feel vulnerable about their skillset or abilities, and they are in an environment where they believe it isn’t safe to reveal those deficits and ask for help, they will create a distraction. In the world of work, this distraction is generally drama, chaos, and unhealthy conflict.

A young leader recently called me, her hands thrown up in the air with frustration as she shared her notes from a recent meeting, where an employee derailed the entire staff by casually tossing a coworker under the bus.

In an instant, the room’s spirit of positive communication, dialogue, and healthy conflict was gone. As quickly as words could fly, the juice and energy of the staff meeting were blown away.

The comment wasn’t immediately addressed because it was time for the meeting to come to a close, and the staff was headed off for the weekend. But the young leader was left shaking her head and wondering, “What the heck just happened?”

When she called me, she was still perplexed, and I found that completely understandable. The comment was one of those casual asides that can only be seen for what it is in hindsight.

As the young leader and I discussed the meeting scenario, she revealed that she had been building a short list of performance issues and gaps to review with the drama-causing staff member. But now, instead, she had to deal with all the bad feelings and fallout from that meeting. In her mind, she needed to put the original work on hold. As she told her story, I was reminded of my former student from the behavioral class.

You see, the hidden truth about this young man’s tendency to create drama was that he was a ninth grader who could read only to a second-grade level. For him, trips to the principal’s office, threats of detention, or phone calls to his mother were all far less risky than having his secret revealed to all of his peers.

So when I asked how the staff member who caused the drama was doing in terms of performance and expectations, it was not surprising to hear that she was falling short. As I mentioned earlier, they were to have a conversation about that very topic, as well as discuss a plan to remedy the situation, in the coming days – but now that conversation was being pushed back because the drama and its fallout had to be attended to.

Over time, I’ve learned that when there are drama and chaos in any workgroup or team, frequently the most obvious symptom isn’t the issue, and spending time treating that most apparent symptom isn’t going to fix the concern.

Is there someone in your life – or maybe it’s you – who is creating drama and chaos as a strategy to cover up insecurities about skills, talents, perceived intelligence, or capability?

Is there someone in your workplace – or maybe it’s you – who is causing drama as a diversion to cover up gaps in performance?

If so, then this becomes an issue of trust. One of my favorite business books is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni talks about how the most foundational component for individuals to feel comfortable in any group or team is trust. And in the absence of trust, no one is going to be vulnerable. No one is going to say, “I can’t answer the question because I can’t read the paragraph. Can you help me?”

Of course, it’s unlikely that any of us could create an environment safe enough for an adolescent boy to admit, in front of his peers, that he can’t read. That would be a pretty tall order, given all the factors that are in play with that scenario.

But could a leader create an environment with enough trust that members of their team can feel safe admitting weaknesses or expressing concerns without fear? I believe so.

That level of trust does not get created in a simple team building; that level of trust gets created by building authentic connections, getting to know ourselves, understanding others, and developing a shared sense of strengths with a shared commitment to group goals.

So if someone in your workgroup – or maybe it’s you – is creating drama and chaos as a distraction, remember my friend, the high school freshman, and check in on the level of trust and willingness to be vulnerable within your work culture.

If you’re curious about what I recommended to that young leader, it was certainly not a simple team building day.

Instead, I invited her to create a team opportunity for dialogue about expectations for behaviors and shared goals. She would start with outlining the team performance she’s expecting and what it looks like, and then facilitate a discussion on: 1) Where the team is now, and 2) What needs to happen for them to reach that goal.

Also, she would meet privately with the staff person who caused that chaos and drama to let them know that was unacceptable behavior. And then, with curiosity, engage in an inquiry about how the staff person perceives they are doing and what support they believe they need to move the needle, followed by concrete steps for performance improvement.

Those are simple short-term solutions to symptoms that indicate a systemic, underlying problem, but they begin a shift to the kind of work culture where vulnerability can be openly shared and will be supported.

Much like the connective tissue of your body’s skeleton keeps your bones and joints working in harmony as you move forward, the ways in which we communicate and support each other are the connective tissue that keeps organizations and teams advancing in accord. And if we ignore the symptoms of distress in those connections, we end up with an organization that can’t make progress.

So are you dealing with drama and chaos in your workplace? If so, contact me.  Let’s get together and dig below the apparent symptoms to uncover the real concerns, and build a plan to increase the forward movement of your team or organization.