Updated: May 28, 2021
What is the Drama Triangle?
The drama triangle was originally conceived (1968-1972) by Karpman to graphically display the complex interaction between people embroiled in pathological conflict.
Drama is what happens when people misuse the energy of conflict, with or without awareness, to feel justified about their negative behaviour. Since justification is the modus operandi in drama, avoiding self-awareness is key. Plus, there are some powerful beliefs about conflicts that derail people from using that energy productively. The good news is that people can learn to recognize their drama roles and chose different behaviours, more healthy ways to deal with conflict.
In drama, people play one or more of three predictable roles will an associated core belief:
Victim's core belief:
"My life is so hard; my life is so unfair. 'Poor me.'" The dynamic: "It's not my fault (it's theirs)."
The benefits of playing the role: You have no responsibility for fixing anything; you get to complain; you attract Rescuers.
The price paid for playing the role: You have no sense of being able to change anything—any change is outside your control. You're known to be ineffective. And no one likes a whiner.
Stuck is: "I feel stuck because I have no power and no influence. I feel useless."
Persecutor's core belief:
"I'm surrounded by fools, idiots or just people less good than me." The dynamic: "It's not my fault (it's yours)."
The benefits of playing the role: You feel superior and have a sense of power and control.
The price paid for playing the role: You end up being responsible for everything. You create Victims. You're known as a micromanager. People do the minimum for you and no more. And no one likes a bully. Stuck is: "I feel stuck because I don't trust anyone. I feel alone."
Rescuer's core belief:
"Don't fight, don't worry, let me jump in and take it on and fix it." The dynamic: "It's my fault/responsibility (not yours)."
The benefits of playing the role: You feel morally superior; you believe you're indispensable.
The price paid for playing the role: People reject your help. You create Victims and perpetuate the Drama Triangle. And no one likes a meddler. Stuck is: "I feel stuck because my rescuing doesn't work. I feel burdened."
What Fuels the Drama Triangle
The fuel of the drama triangle is the lack of personal responsibility. For the victim, that means not taking responsibility for choices and outcomes and not exercising responsibility to stop blaming and taking ownership. It means they are not taking responsibility for their self-care or the impact they have on the victim for the Rescuer. And for the persecutor, it means misuse of what could be a positive intention.
And unfortunately, the individuals in the drama triangle are acting unconsciously to get their needs met. They don't see the bigger picture and are unable to shift toward responsibility.
Think of the most annoying person on your team right now, the one who's giving you difficulty even as we speak. Did you notice that in a flash, you jumped to Persecutor (They make me so mad!), Victim (It's not fair, why can't I get them onto Someone else's team?) and Rescuer (I'll just keep trying to do their work for them until they get up to speed) all at once? We tend to have a favourite role we default to most of the time. When asked to identify which of these roles you play most often, most choose the Rescuer.
When we're in Rescuer mode, we're constantly leaping in to solve problems, jumping in to offer advice, taking over responsibilities that others should rightfully keep for themselves. We do it with good intentions; we're just trying to help and "add value" to managers. But you can already see the price that's being paid by both sides.
You're exhausted—and they're irritated.
You're limiting opportunities for growth and for expanding the potential of those you're working with. Rescuers create Victims. We want to believe it's the other way around (which is also true, but not only true).
How much do you experience a drama triangle in your business? When we talk to leaders about the key challenges in their business culture, there is one commonality that comes up time and time again – workplace drama.
Unfortunately increased levels of drama in your business is more than just a leadership headache – it directly impacts your bottom line. The more your team gossip, or engage in drama, the less they are focused on your customers and their performance. The drama takes time and that’s time you’re paying for which isn’t being spent doing anything to positively impact your bottom line.
In some businesses drama is obvious, in others it is less obvious, but most certainly still there. In less obvious situations, leaders simply swoop in and save the day consistently – although masked as a positive – this is still creating drama by not enabling others in your team to help themselves.
A Better Interaction Model
There have been some improvements since the introduction of the Karpman Drama Triangle over 40 years ago. One that I like is called The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) developed by David Emerald. The Empowerment Dynamic takes the classic Karpman triangle and flips it upside down with a positive expression of each of these roles.
In the TED model, the victim shifts to become the creator. The creator is the author of their own life and takes full responsibility for their actions and the outcomes they achieve. The rescuer role shifts to become the coach. The coach is encouraging but doesn’t take on the responsibility of fixing or propping up the rescuer The persecutor role shifts to become the challenger. The challenger speaks the truth with the intent of supporting the creator to achieve their best.
What practical techniques can you put in place to eliminate drama and operate from an empowerment role as a leader?
Refuse to play the hero – if a team member approaches you about a situation involving another person, be cautious to avoid triangulation, by involving yourself and potentially rescuing them when they don’t need it – simply ask if they have already spoken one on one to the other person? You may need to play coach to help them think through the most conducive way to do this, but the important thing is to not go and speak on their behalf.
Facilitate a conversation – If the conversation is more complicated, or the victim feels really uncomfortable, offering to facilitate a meeting can be useful. The key here is to make sure to stay in the facilitator role, asking questions of both parties. Do not pass judgement or take sides otherwise, this will start the drama triangle off again.
Use “best intentions” – If you are working with someone in either victim or villain mode, emotions will be high, a great technique to use to help someone diffuse this is to ask them what they think the other person’s best intentions could have been in that situation.
Stay focussed on “short term pain for long term gain” – Moving out of the drama triangle will feel more pain in the short term as it will take time to teach someone how to do something instead of doing it for them, or coaching them through a conversation or situation – but long term you will see the benefits of these individuals feeling more empowered and performing at a higher level because of it.