“Not my circus, not my monkeys”: sidestepping drama

My late wife taught me the Polish saying “not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means “that’s not my problem” but also “that is not my drama, so I am not going to stay engaged with it.” It’s a critical, under-valued, career-supporting skill to identify which workplace situations to leave alone and to come up with an appropriate way of opting out of them.

First, a definition. In this context, “drama” means intellectually and emotionally demanding engagement with ongoing workplace situations that are not primarily about your work or your career. An important caveat: some workplace situations are not “drama,” even if not primarily about you and your work. Sexual or racial harassment, bias in hiring or management or dismissal are not drama, though unfortunately any or all may be dramatic – they are serious workplace issues that need to be handled by the proper person in your organization. If you observe any of that, you should encourage the colleague being treated wrongly to go to his or her boss (unless the boss is the source of the problem) or to Human Resources (HR), if your workplace has that function; you should also let your boss know what you have observed.

Many workplace situations that turn into drama start out as ordinary situations where you might reasonably be called on as a friend or colleague:

  • A colleague is having trouble with her project and can’t figure out how to tell her boss.
    • Not drama: giving advice over lunch, and roleplaying her boss to give her confidence
    • Drama: discussing every future interaction with her boss, or discussing the same situation more than three times
  • A colleague is worried about a rumored reorg and fears his job or project will be eliminated
    • Not drama: sitting down to discuss his options if he does lose his job, and encouraging him to update his résumé, and reviewing it once, perhaps again if he revises it
    • Drama: discussing endless possible reorgs several times
  • A colleague is having trouble with another colleague’s not pulling his weight on her project
    • Not drama: discussing how the colleague might raise the issue with her co-worker
    • Drama: discussing the issue more than three times before the colleague raises the issue; listening to ongoing complaints about the slacker while your colleague does not raise it with him

The drama-ridden version of all these situations share two key characteristics: 1) lack of resolution, to the point where discussing the situation becomes the point, rather than fixing it, and 2) something that is not fundamentally your issue becoming your issue.  Remember that it’s often easier for the person struggling to raise an issue with a sympathetic colleague than with the source of the problem, but that doesn’t solve the problem for your colleague or for you.

Like every good colleague, you should help fellow employees get to resolution on things they are struggling with.  You should also be ready, however, to say to someone that you have contributed all you can to a discussion and now need to step aside. You step away in a one-, two- or three-part process: you remind your colleague of what you have already done; you mention how often you have already engaged with that issue; you point out where you should be focusing your time and energy. Some handy phrases:

  • “That is happening again? I am sorry. This is a bad pattern, though; have you raised it with [problematic colleague’s boss]?”
  • “I don’t know what to say any more. Can you get some help from [leader of your team / your boss]?”
  • “I am going to be busy for the next [interval]; my boss wants me to work on [my own most important project].”

Secondary phrases, when you are pushed to re-engage, all of which involve your saying no:

  • “No, I really don’t have any more advice. You definitely need to talk to [appropriate person].”
  • “Wow. I just cannot focus on that right now, I am so busy with [other thing that is my job].”
  • “I can only suggest raising it directly with [problematic person].”

Be careful of adding “I’m sorry” to any of these phrases; women in particular tend to apologize for focusing their energy on their own jobs and get guilted into taking on others’ work. You need to say “not my circus, not my monkeys” to yourself and believe it and then not engage, or stop engaging. You have your own monkeys and your own circus.

Good luck!