The Science Behind Your Dramatic Co-Worker
Did you know that the behaviors associated with a drama royal may actually be rooted in a scientifically measurable need to experience emotion?
(Originally published on Forbes.com March 1, 2019)
According to Dictionary.com, a “drama queen” is “a person who often has exaggerated or overly emotional reactions to events or situations.”
If you have ever watched TV or interacted with a group of people on any level, you have probably come across a boss, co-worker or employee who people may have viewed as a drama queen or drama king (we’ll call them drama royals for now). Or, maybe you, yourself, have even been called a drama royal at some point.
In the past, I have cautioned against everyday thinking errors such as “labeling” or making global statements about yourself and other people. However, the behaviors associated with a drama royal may actually be rooted in a scientifically measurable need to experience emotion.
We all have basic human needs, and the need to experience emotion is one of them. It occurs at different levels in each of us, but individuals with the highest levels can be supercharged by these emotional experiences.
Your Team Has Needs
If you ever took, (and remember) Psychology 101, you may recall learning about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In his early work, Maslow described how our actions are largely motivated by our natural, human desire to fulfill certain needs, including:
1. Physical survival
2. Safety and security
5. Self-actualization (feelings of accomplishment)
Maslow explained how we are often led to fulfill these basic needs in a specific order, where we subconsciously don’t activate the next level of needs until we feel that we have fulfilled the needs of the current stage. Many social scientists, including Maslow himself, did note that his model was not perfect and that we don’t require every need in the hierarchy to progress to the highest levels of motivation. However, this basic theory did pave the way for more modern work surrounding human needs, motivation, and how they guide our behaviors.
For managers, these basic needs provide clues about how to increase job satisfaction, increase productivity, and improve overall organizational performance.
For example, by ensuring safe work environments, leaders can satisfy team members’ innate need for safety/security. By cultivating positive team dynamics, managers can support the inborn need for social belonging. Job titles, opportunities for promotion, public recognition and awards can contribute to the need for self-esteem, and professional development opportunities can help propel team members to their highest levels of self-actualization.
The Feeling Of Feeling
A more recently measured need is our need for affect. Affect is our typical overall experience of emotion, and we each possess different levels of our inborn need to both approach and avoid situations that stir up feelings and emotions. As outlined in the life’s work of Princeton professor and world-renowned psychologist Dr. Silvan Tomkins, the nine basic affective (emotional) reactions that we each possess from birth include:
• Positive emotional reactions: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy
• Neutral emotional reactions: surprise-startle
• Negative emotional reactions: distress-anguish, anger-rage, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, disgust and “dismell”
To determine the level of one’s need for affect, both the emotion-approach and emotion-avoidance factors are measured separately. The difference between these two levels is known as our total need for affect.
Individuals who have an overall inborn desire to avoid circumstances that trigger emotional reactions, particularly the negative reactions, are said to have a low need for affect. You may notice their preference for avoiding things like haunted houses, sad movies, workplace disputes and interpersonal disagreements because they don’t like to feel the corresponding emotions.
However, individuals with an inborn desire to approach circumstances that trigger emotional reactions are said to have a high need for affect. They may be drawn to things like haunted houses, sad movies and workplace disputes because they truly enjoy the experience of emotions. Remember how a drama royal is defined as “someone who often has exaggerated or overly emotional reactions to events or situations?” These especially dramatic individuals naturally enjoy being in their feelings, whether positive, neutral or even negative. They like the feeling of feeling. They truly believe that emotions are productive, and their reactions to situations outwardly reflect that.
People rating high in need for affect might also find it more difficult to work through the everyday thinking trap of emotional reasoning. With emotional reasoning, people interpret their experiences based on how they are feeling in the moment. In these instances, their strong natural desire to experience emotions can cloud their cognitive decision making, causing them to focus more on the negative emotions than the positive emotions.
In The World Of Work
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the experience of emotions. They are what make us human, particularly in the growing age of artificial intelligence. However, problems can arise when you are more prone to exaggerated or overly emotional reactions.
If you notice drama-royal tendencies in yourself or members of your team, here’s how to keep your productivity flowing:
1. Focus on the positive. Try to be more mindful about not focusing on the negative emotions.
2. Have a clear mind. Ask yourself if your emotional state of mind is keeping you from seeing things clearly.
3. Give it time. If someone on your team appears to have these overly dramatic tendencies, allow them to express themselves. However, once their state of heightened emotion has calmed down a bit, try to point out the positives in the situation.
4. Allow productive conflict. If the heightened negative emotions are causing interpersonal disagreements about things unrelated to the team’s tasks, try to guide the conversations away from personal issues and more toward conversations about the what and how of the task itself. Just note that task conflict is actually productive. Relationship conflict is not.
5. Agree to disagree. If all else fails, simply let them know that you respect how they are feeling but you don’t feel the same way about the situation as they do. At least maintain your sanity so that you can keep moving your work forward.