Identifying the Drama Triangle

Encouraging Healthier Social Dynamics in the Workplace

As a leader, one of your most important jobs is to encourage healthy social dynamics in the workplace. Becoming aware of the roles you may be playing in the professional dynamic, and observing the roles your people are adopting in their relationships with others, can help you and your colleagues shift out of non-productive patterns and embrace healthier ways of interacting.

One tool many accomplished leaders use to analyze and understand the roles at play in the workplace is based on the work of Dr. Stephen Karpman, a graduate of the Duke School of Medicine and a well-known transactional analyst. Called “the Drama Triangle,” Karpman’s model maps out destructive interactions in personal and professional interactions in which individuals either unconsciously assume, or are manipulated into assuming, one of three roles: victim, rescuer, or persecutor.*

Let’s take a look at the three roles Karpman is referring to in his model:

Victims. Victims view themselves as oppressed and powerless, denying both responsibility for their negative situations and any power to alter them. This role that they have either unconsciously chosen or been manipulated into choosing for themselves, renders them poor problem-solvers and decision-makers who constantly blame others for their issues. The anxiety created by a self-image that’s powerless and incapable keeps the victim constantly in search of someone to save them. They surrender their ability to be proactive in favor of what can be a paralyzing dependency that will limit their personal relationships and professional performance until the cycle is broken.

Rescuers. Unlike those who have chosen professional “helping roles” intentionally and who have been educated to perform those roles in a healthy fashion, rescuers are the classic “enablers.” They will sacrifice their own wellbeing and that of others in order to “save” them. Entrenched in a cycle of codependency, rescuers cannot permit others to truly improve because their self-worth is bound to their perceived ability to save them. Therefore, rescuers become skilled in keeping their victims dependent through the use of guilt and manipulation. Overprotective and long-suffering, rescuers are the classic “martyr types” who capitalize on the victim’s neediness. They perpetuate this dependency in order to make themselves indispensable in an unhealthy, non-productive way.

Persecutors. The persecutor overcomes feelings of helplessness and shame by overpowering others. Because they deny their own vulnerability, persecutors need a victim upon whom they can project their fear. Once they find a victim to fill this role, persecutors then keep them oppressed by blaming and criticizing them. They are controlling and authoritative, often using rage to create the fear that makes the victim easy to control. They are inflexible and autocratic, lacking in empathy and self-awareness, ironically because they’re afraid of becoming a victim themselves. They dominate, threaten, preach, lecture, and attack. In short, persecutors are the bullies of the drama triangle.

Self-assessment is the first step

Ask yourself if you’ve been experiencing a lot of conflict accompanied by minimal resolution. Is it possible that you may be participating, even unconsciously, in the Drama Triangle? Effective leaders examine their own relationships and social interactions for evidence of any instances when they might be personally caught up in Drama Triangle dynamics.

Obviously, adapting the roles of victim, rescuer, or persecutor to any degree degrades your talent as a leader. The good news is that it’s possible to break out of these ingrained patterns through self-awareness, adept coaching, mentoring, and practice. Recognizing any components of Karpman’s Drama Triangle in yourself will make it easier to spot these social dynamics at work in your people, and put you in a stronger position to help them disengage from these dysfunction patterns.

How a good leader can help the team

Good leaders can help their people break the self-limiting hold of the drama triangle by making them aware of the dynamics and suggesting alternative reactions.

  • Have you noticed any of your people adapting the victim role? Your job as a leader is to encourage these individuals to assume responsibility for themselves rather than look outside themselves for a savior. Giving workplace “victims” the opportunity to make decisions will challenge their perceptions of themselves as needy and incapable, and encourage them to emerge from the gravitational pull of the Drama Triangle by learning to own their impressions and reactions.
  • As a leader, you know that being truly supportive and collaborative in the workplace isn’t about rescuing a colleague. Rescuers deprive their co-workers of real opportunities to grow and contribute, whereas genuine team players empower them to be the best they can be—even if that means making mistakes and dealing with the consequences. When one of your people is truly supportive, they trust that their colleagues have what it takes to handle challenges without feeling the need to “save” them. Rescuers disable those around them; true collaborators encourage self-responsibility. This dynamic empowers growth instead of promoting dependency.
  • Bringing awareness to someone on the team who has assumed the role of persecutor is one of the most difficult tasks for the leader. Many who have assumed the role of persecutor in the workplace dynamic don’t see it at all. Rather, they view themselves as demanding but fair, and are reluctant to see any other implications of their behavior. A gifted leader can help the unwitting adopter of the persecutor role to see the workplace dynamic they are creating and offer alternative suggestions for fostering accountability. Self-accountability is the only way off the grid for the persecutor.

Dysfunctional though it may be, each role on the Drama Triangle has its own rewards. Victims get to be cared for, rescuers feel powerful by acting as saviors, and persecutors thrive on the superiority they feel to both the victim and rescuer. In addition, what makes Karpman’s Drama Triangle so powerful is the fact that people frequently adapt all three roles at various times and situations.

People act out these three roles to meet personal and often unconscious needs. It’s the leader’s role to observe their team members’ behavior and acknowledge patterns. By encouraging reflection, a gifted leader can help their people choose more productive responses that break the cycle and release healthier social dynamics in the workplace.

Can you identify any personal or professional relationships in which Karpman’s Drama Triangle may be at work?

*- It’s important to recognize that these roles do not result from the circumstances in someone’s life; certainly there are real victims of abuse and racism, and those who genuinely intervene to help address the situation who cannot be classified as any of the roles in Karpman’s victim triangle.)

Next month we’ll talk about “The Power of TED,” a model for encouraging healthy social dynamics in the workplace.