As tips go, this is stretching it, but avoid chaos. It’s good advice.

Doesn’t everyone avoid chaos? Chaos is destructive. It’s often emotional. It is never helpful. That’s like telling people to avoid poison. Everybody knows that. Duh.

Right. Except people take poison all the time through drugs, alcohol, and even dietary choices that they know to be personally harmful, such as enduring a low-grade allergic reaction to enjoy a forbidden food. What we know and what we do aren’t the same things so often we coined the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do.”

If you ask, everyone hates chaos, even the guy in the office who is steeped in it all the time. He’s a chaos magnet. It’s not like he’s choosing this stuff. He’s the victim. It’s all happening to him. Again. Or she. There’s no sexism in chaos-seeking, which is exactly what’s happening.

For a thousand psycho-babble reasons, people seek to create their normal in the world around them. Most people bring in a handful of pictures or a plant for their desk, which will be a little slice of their normal that they get to take with them to work. Snacks or lunches from home are the same, and one only needs to peek in the break room fridge to see the diversity in what is considered normal. That’s fabulous—the more the merrier—but realize that the unseeable parts of a person are just as diverse, and people will seek to make their emotional space feel normal to them as well. If someone has never lived a day without chaos, your peaceful office is an alien planet, but with a little paranoia and prodding, they can sigh peacefully in the familiarity of the energy around them, regardless of the destruction in their wake.

They don’t know this, by the way. If you don’t know someone in your life, either present or past, who I’m describing, then it’s you. No attack intended—this is a safe space—but we’ve all lived life, we all have experiences, we all have some intangible sense of what life is supposed to feel like and we try to fulfill it. Some people can’t stand a quiet room while others can’t stand noise, whether measured in decibels or drama.

But we’re all human, so we can’t just separate ourselves from drama-mongers so easily. Not to mention some of the most chaotic people I’ve ever met are also the most creative, and that in some way at some time all of us bring drama. The key isn’t to squash all drama in the world, it’s to give it a small box to live in that’s separate from the rest so life can still function—room to be human with boundaries that give everyone that same room.

How do you do that when your drama-monger—let’s call him Steve—is also the person who works on every project just before or just after you? Interaction is unavoidable and directly work-related. Steve’s drama has the potential to ripple through your life and the company’s reputation if you, and only you, can’t keep hold of the reigns, and you don’t know if you can do it. That’s a lot of pressure.

First off, there’s a limit. If Steve is only 75% work and a full 25% drama, a talking-to is in order, and it is possible that Steve is just too complicated to manage as part of the team. It’s actually not a hard decision to make. If it is, you probably shouldn’t make it—when you’re sure he has to go, he has to go, with no regrets, and sometimes that’s unavoidable. Maybe he’ll learn from it and Steve can have a better life down the road because of it.

Happy trails, Steve. We know they will be perilous, but only because you personally and perpetually pack a peck of peril on every path. We pray you swap that parcel for peace.

As long as it’s not utterly ridiculous, drama has to have a little space of it’s own or it starts to carve one out for itself, which is rarely convenient. Some opt for corporate sterility, and that can be effective in really large groups because everyone already feels a little alienated and lost in the herd, but if you have an everyone-knows-everyone office, even trying for that can be more hurtful than helpful.

Here are some tips—yes actual tips—to corral the chaos:

Scheduled chaos

Let it be known that the first 30 minutes of the day, for example, are a great time to get coffee, check messages, say hi, and be there for each other as friends. If that feels like a waste of time, know that you’re already spending more than 30 minutes a day on it, it’s just happening on top of and throughout other things. It’s like recess when we were kids—if there’s a good time to chat, then everyone can pay attention for work and save their personal story for chat time. You may find it’s more productive.

Private meetings

If someone on your team is having a really hard time, listen. Be a friend. Sure, you have to bring it back to work in a timely manner, but generally you will spend less time listening without interrupting than you would have spent redirecting. Giving a defined—and therefore limited—space for expression is important, but the key is to listen until they run out of things to say, at which point there isn’t any more story to punctuate the rest of the day. Plus, we could all stand to be better friends to the people around us. One day it might be you who needs that moment.

Room to be Human

The law provides guidelines for time off to meet family needs, attend medical appointments, funerals, etc. If at all possible, just be understanding. As long as no one is obviously taking advantage, allow more than the minimum. If there’s no emotional penalty for taking time off for a doctor’s appointment, the entire office relaxes just a little. When people feel respected and as though their personal needs are important to the company, they are generally happier and more loyal. While it is measurable how many hours were lost to allowing flexibility, people are more productive in the time they spend at work if they are happy. It’s impossible to measure the financial difference compared to the path not chosen, but a kind and comfortable environment will always be more profitable in the end, with less turnover and better team chemistry as opposed to a continuous training cycle and halfhearted effort.

Gentle redirection

Boundaries are important, but trying to set them rigidly between work life and personal life is impractical, and we need to realize that people are people 100% of the time. It’s perfectly acceptable to listen appropriately, then suggest that work might actually be a break from their problems if they can shift their focus. If they are struggling to focus on work and it is impeding progress, perhaps suggest that they take some time off. Either they will agree, or they will make an effort to be more present at work, as the suggestion correctly implies that the current level of interruption is excessive. If that’s unsuccessful, it may be necessary to involve a supervisor, or, if you are the supervisor, request they take a leave of absence or counsel the team member on potential separation from the team if they can not focus.

Trying to shut down personal drama intruding on the work environment can be like dousing a grease fire with water—the individual may feel compelled to try to tell the story 20 times over the course of the day because they never got to finish it once, and it is both kinder and more efficient to give them room. But every room has walls—that’s part of the definition of a room—and establishing boundaries will help you build an environment that is both supportive and successful.

Otherwise, in his overly-emotional state, Steve might just leave the drive—the one and only drive that contains all the work the team has done for the last week—in the trunk of his car over the hot summer weekend. Oh, Steve...

...and I’d like to talk to you about redundancy...

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