My Blog

Leaders as Space holders

If you’re not dealing with drama, you aren’t leading. 

People issues dominate my coaching sessions. They range from co-founder conflicts to early employees that don’t scale to board members who block acquisitions. Dealing with team drama as a leader is a common challenge that can’t be ignored.

The founder’s attitude is typically, “Why the eff am I dealing with people issues when I should be building the company?” But here’s the truth: dealing with team drama as a leader **is** building the company.

I can hear you saying, “I’m not their therapist! I’m a problem solver.” But you’re not just a problem solver. You’re a leader. And working with people that switch jobs every 2-3 years on average, it’s important to build human affinity to retain your team. Dealing with team drama as a leader is part of creating a stable, loyal workforce.

I don’t care if you work with a hardcore technical team that you think doesn’t have emotions. Everyone has emotions (if you don’t believe this, go watch *Inside Out 2* now!). We need to jettison the model of employees (and ourselves) as robots. How often do we get mad at ourselves for being tired after putting in 70-hour weeks? As if the robot self should be beaten like a horse to produce more and more! Dealing with team drama as a leader requires recognizing and addressing these human elements.

It’s time to stop complaining about the drama of people. I know, it blows. This isn’t the job you seemed to sign up for. What happened to the good old days when you were hacking away on your couch and it was fun? Now you have a team of 20 and there are rumors and people are bringing them to you. Won’t they just shut up and do their work like good children? 

The Parent-Child Fallacy

Your teammates aren’t your children. You didn’t birth them, change their diapers, or spend sleepless nights waking up to breastfeed them (I guess unless you actually hire your kids). Dealing with team drama as a leader means treating your team as capable adults.

Your team (hopefully) are consenting adults who chose to go on this journey with you. They have their own inner motivations: from wanting to buy their first house to learning how to scale a business from nothing to something. They are complex, beautiful, insecure human beings. Like you. So when these complex beings come to you with beef about one another, don’t approach it with the energy that you “shouldn’t” be dealing with this. Of course you should, these are the deepest complexities of scaling. Dealing with team drama as a leader is essential for navigating these complexities.

Now, HOW you handle this is a different question. Don’t belittle them as children. Treat them like adults and you’d be surprised how they respond. Be clear about your expectations, voice when they are or aren’t meeting them (humans like positive feedback, too!), and hold them responsible for the consequences of their actions. Dealing with team drama as a leader involves setting clear boundaries and expectations.

Sometimes, your teammates drop into child-like states. When they do this, it’s tempting to act like a parent. Scold them, micro-manage them, or worse, not hold them accountable because you see them as fragile. When you respond as a parent, you have created a parent-child polarization. As they move into one role at one end of the spectrum, you find your safe haven on the other end. They soon learn that when they tantrum or shirk responsibility, you will start to diffuse that responsibility and take some on your own shoulders. Dealing with team drama as a leader means avoiding these polarizations and fostering accountability.

Pause Before You React

The remedy to this polarization is to do your own work. Pause when someone ticks you off by bringing you yet another problem. What’s the role you’re about to unconsciously step into? Parent-Child? Hero-Villain? Fosterer-Victim? Dealing with team drama as a leader requires self-awareness and mindful reactions.

The reactions to this situation are often polarized. On one end, leaders step in and over-manage in an unconscious effort to “protect” the child. On the other end, leaders become avoidant and push the issue entirely back on their plate to figure out. They are “too busy.” I’d argue in most cases for the middle path. Hold space to diagnose the issue. Then decide if you step in and how. Dealing with team drama as a leader is about finding the right balance.

Leaders as Space Holders

Being a space holder means you help people feel psychological safety. People know they can speak up, offer ideas, and take risks without fear of negative mental consequences such as humiliation, punishment, or ostracism. Let’s be real here: in startups, you can’t guarantee total safety or stability. Companies do layoffs or run out of money. That’s part of the risk of joining an early-stage company: the risk is high but the pay-off could be enormous. If someone is underperforming, you’ll likely have to fire them. But dealing with team drama as a leader involves creating pockets of psychological safety.

I want to offer a different definition of creating psychological safety in business. There are carveouts of space within the manager-employee dynamic where you as the leader simply listen and witness. Before the problem solving, before the coddling or dismissing of another, you actively listen. Dealing with team drama as a leader starts with active listening.

Space Holding in Action

At Chewse, we introduced a practice that had a profound impact on our culture: the Color Check-In. This simple yet powerful method allowed team members to share how they were feeling—green for great, yellow for okay, and red for struggling—both personally and professionally. This wasn’t just about bullet points and status updates; it was about creating a space for genuine sharing and connection. Dealing with team drama as a leader often means creating structured opportunities for open communication.

What if the next time someone brought you an issue, you asked them what their color is? If they’re red or yellow, spend a little time asking why they picked that color. Then take the moment to ask the golden question, “How can I support you?” You may know the answer to their problem. You may be dying to share your genius response. But hold space for them to come up with their own answer. So they learn to make requests. Dealing with team drama as a leader means empowering your team to find their own solutions.

Leaders in build mode have a common mindset: every problem brought to them they have to fix. Otherwise they aren’t doing their job. But once you hire a team, you are building the machine that builds the machine. That means you aren’t just scaling the process to roll smoothly, you are training people to operate from a place of agency so they can function with interdependence. The “how can I support you” question is actually a method of delegation. It’s delegating the matter of if and how they want the problem solved. It’s how you pause to make space before simply diving in and becoming the parent or hero. Dealing with team drama as a leader involves teaching your team to take ownership of their issues.

Sometimes your teammate needs another person to witness their problem. This is often called the “rubber ducky” problem, where the manager tells their employee to talk to a rubber ducky instead of them. Because it’s a waste of time to listen to someone. That’s ludicrous. Even the smartest people I know (a few of whom I coach!) appreciate the open, shared space with another person to problem solve or simply share a problem. There are boundaries to how long that can take, but done well, good listening goes a long way. Dealing with team drama as a leader means valuing the time spent listening.

I hope this post helps to shift some unhelpful mindsets we have in Silicon Valley and in corporate culture. I’ve always found a more human approach to leadership changes the entire dynamic and unlocks doors to opportunities you can’t imagine. It’s time we accept that we work with complex, beautiful, messy humans. From that position, how do you want to lead?

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