How spa managers can reduce drama in the workplace

Drama Free Spa Workplace

Spa workplace drama? Eric Stephenson talks about how to cope.

All workplaces have drama. Human nature is dramatic, and can tend towards backstabbing, infighting, power plays, and jealousy. And spas are no different. Spas can be very dramatic workplaces. Service providers are overworked and tired, customers can be demanding, and managers don’t always have the tools required to diffuse the tensions that can mount.

This can have significant costs, as tension can create an unpleasant environment and guest experience, which is not good for business.

Eric Stephenson of Elements MassageEric Stephenson, Chief Wellness Officer at Elements Massage®, has been running workshops on creating a drama-free workplace for years. Stephenson has worked as both a massage therapist and a massage school instructor and has owned and operated his own consulting company. He says that, along the way, he learned a lot about handling and avoiding workplace drama.

“I noticed,” said Stephenson in an interview with Spa Executive, “that when the leadership was good at establishing boundaries and communicating expectations, there were fewer negative emotions draining the culture.”

He has determined some very specific tactics for keeping these negative emotions out of the workplace.

Here are five recommended strategies for establishing a drama-free spa workplace, according to Stephenson.

Create a psychologically safe work environment

“The single biggest marker for a successful work team, according to research by Google, is a psychologically safe work environment,” says Stephenson.

“The psychologist Carl Rogers coined a term that is ‘unconditional positive regard for other human beings.’ I use this as one of the tenets in my teaching for psychological safety. It means a basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. You have to create a sense of unconditional positive regard for everyone that you work with, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to look past stereotypes and judgments.”

This isn’t easy, he says. “It’s quite difficult, but it has to be part of the culture, and it has to be indoctrinated from the top down.”

Be a caring manager

Research shows that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers, meaning we quit because of our bosses. Stephenson says, “This is true in every industry, but I think it’s especially true in spa. Service providers, especially massage therapists, are 70% of a spa’s revenue. These people are passionate about helping people. They want to come to work and know that their managers care about more than making money.

“Caring managers are consistently supportive, they don’t jump to conclusions, they’re good at active listening, and at checking in with their team. They are also skilled at reinforcing boundaries and professional agreements. This is at the heart of what makes a spa tick.”

Communicate expectations

Spa managers must clearly communicate expectations to team members, says Stephenson.

“In my experience, when you go into a spa, 50% of the time it will be a really good experience, and then 50% of the time it won’t be. I think this is because approaches to service are not consistent, and expectations are not communicated from the manager. You have to be clear about the type of experience you’re aiming to provide, and communicate exactly how you are all going to provide it.

And, sometimes people go rogue. “Most people will do things they way the spa is asking them to,” Stephenson goes on, “but then someone says, ‘Well, I know we’re supposed to do it this way, but this is the way I do it.’ And that can create a lot of drama within the team. These issues need to be addressed by making it clear, if you want things done a certain way, that that’s how they should be done for the benefit of the entire team and ultimately, the guest.”

Remind your team of the purpose of their work

Stephenson believes that, in order to have a successful spa business, you need to have a higher purpose that is clearly communicated to your team. “This is important,” he says, “especially for the millennial generation, because purpose is such a big part of what they’re looking for in a job.”

He says, “The spa industry is so purpose driven, I think a key piece of engagement is regularly reminding our teams what we’re doing in the world, above and beyond making money, and frequently telling that story in creative ways.

“Organizational consultant and best-selling author Simon Sinek would call this the continual reinforcement of the “Why” behind our business.”

Learn to navigate conflict

Even if you have a wonderful workplace, with clearly communicated purpose and goals, you’re still going to have conflict, and managers need to learn how to handle it effectively.

Stephenson says, “When we encounter a problem in business, we tend to either go into a fight-or-flight response or a freeze response. If you can override that, and not be afraid of problems, you can turn everything around. It’s crucial that we learn how to navigate conflict. Knowing what is happening in your body when faced with an unpleasant situation can help you learn how to overcome it.”

Stephenson teaches something called the “Calmer Method” to help people deal with conflict.

Here’s how the “Calmer Method” works in Stephenson’s words:

1. CALM – your amygdala

The amygdala controls the fight-or-flight response. Interrupting a reaction with a deep breath can help override a purely emotional response to the situation.

2. ALLOW- only the facts to surface

Using a statement such as, “I notice….” or “I am noticing,” we can identify the situation in objective terms stating facts. This can help bring up sensitive topics without placing blame or judgment. You can also say, for example, “I’d like to describe what I’m noticing and get your interpretation of it.”

3. LISTEN – to their point of view first.

Listen to the other person’s interpretation of the situation and try to understand their point of view. We may be missing some important information. Remember, the desire to be seen and heard is a basic human need.

4. MIRROR – back your understanding.

Repeat what you’ve heard and ask, “Is that correct?” Pause and run it through your truth meter. Trust your gut feeling here. Does the story you are hearing add up to the facts? How you handle the next step might depend on this reading.

5. EXPLAIN – your side of the equation.

With an understanding of their intent, express your point of view. Use only “I” statements and refrain from “you” statements.


The intent of both parties is weighed, and an agreement is made on how to proceed. In some cases, we “agree to disagree.” In other cases, we are unable to reach an agreement and we move on.


Eric Stephenson is the Chief Wellness Officer for Elements Massage®, one of the largest providers of massage therapy in the United States. Elements Massage was recently recognized by Newsweek as No. 1 in its 2019 America’s Best Customer Service list in the ‘Spa, Wellness and Beauty’ category. As licensed massage therapist, educator and consultant, his professional travels have enabled him to work with massage therapists around the world. Stephenson is a board member of the International Spa Association.



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