The Drama Triangle
The health and efficiency of an organization can be judged by how often triangulation occurs and whether or not it is tolerated by leaders. Triangulation is when two parties don’t speak directly to each other. They mediate their concerns through a third party. As a result, triangulation usually produces gossip, rumors, inefficient practices, and persecutory attitudes. It’s a culture killer.
According to Stephen Karpman, who coined the term Drama Triangle, these three roles typically emerge in triangulation:
- Victim–Victims blame and fault others (or situations), but not themselves; they don’t typically take responsibility for their own lives. They show up as angry or pathetic, in response to perceived injustice. They send out a radio-like signal saying help me, rescue me, need me, be with me, love me, or organize me to all rescuers within range. They may exaggerate the level of harm to gain pity or sympathy from a rescuer. According to Karpman, the victim’s guilt or blame is the fuel that keeps the Drama-Triangle cycle spinning like a flywheel.
- Persecutor–In order for there to be a victim, there must be a persecutor. The persecutor can be a person, circumstance, event, or thing. Persecutors become the target of the victims’ need to blame something outside themselves for their problems.
- Rescuer–The rescuer is the hero of the story. Rescuers see it as their role to help the helpless. They don’t view victims as capable, so they act in their stead, often without realizing the full consequences of intervening. Sometimes they rush to protect others’ vulnerabilities because they’re reluctant to face their own.
How the Drama Triangle Works
Here’s how the system of triangulation starts: a victim approaches a rescuer with information about what a persecutor has done. From there, the drama can unfold in many ways. Rescuers often hold power in the organization, and, when their compassion and sense of justice are stirred, they may try to wield this power. Maybe the rescuer calls in other alleged victims for verification or strategic discussions. Maybe the rescuer confronts the persecutor or slyly tries to orchestrate a confession. Maybe the rescuer tries to sabotage or exact revenge on the persecutor. Or maybe the rescuer takes pains to make sure the victim is protected in the future and/or compensated. In any event, a lot of organizational time and energy has been spent. And it’s not over.
Persecutors aren’t always clear-cut villains. They may very well feel that they are the victims, and they may have grounds to prove it. They may be unfairly blamed by others who operate from a victim’s mindset in order to avoid work or blame. Or they may feel it’s unfair for the rescuer and the victim to be teaming up against them. The role of victim and persecutor can and does often switch, depending on what action is taken (gossip, rumors, revenge) against the initial persecutor. The roles aren’t fixed. Even those who are predominantly rescuers can slide at times into the role of victim or persecutor.
It’s also important to note that rescuers aren’t always true heroes. Some relish the power that playing the rescuer affords them. They may enjoy hearing and even spreading rumors. Or they may like pretending that they are, in essence, trial judges and above the fray.
Is it any surprise that triangulation can bring organizations and their productivity to a standstill?
7 Ways for Leaders to Reduce Triangulation
1. Make the consequences significant. The most effective way, I’ve found, to stop triangulation is for the CEO to communicate that employees caught engaging in triangulation will be fired. It is amazing how fast the behavior changes! Of course, there are other less extreme ways to de-program the triangulators.
2. Refuse to rescue victims. Whenever victims approach you, simply ask if they have already spoken to the persecutor. If not, instruct the victim to do so and report back on the conversation. Reporting back is important because otherwise the conversation between victim and perpetrator likely won’t happen. If the victim persists in trying to get you involved, and they usually are persistent (and even highly manipulative), here is what you might say (courtesy of Dr. Alison Paulsen):
- I value the relationship we have and the one I have with your colleague. I believe what you’re sharing with me will put me in a compromising situation that I do not wish to be in. I am asking you not to share this with me.
- What you’re sharing with me has little or nothing to do with me, and I am feeling very uncomfortable with your level of disclosure on this.
- This is beyond my skill and capability to help you with. I would suggest you seek out expert council to better understand your alternatives.
- This type of conversation I see as unproductive, and I would like you to think of a different way to handle it.
3. Offer to facilitate a meeting. If the victim feels uncomfortable having the conversation directly with the persecutor, offer to sit in on the meeting to help support better communication in the future. When you attend this meeting, be sure to act as a facilitator, not a rescuer. If you pass judgment or take sides, the other two parties won’t be as inclined to own and resolve their issues. The Drama Triangle will continue or a new one will emerge.
4. Name the conflict. If you’re facilitating a meeting between members of a Drama Triangle, ask each party to name the conflict. Put their answers on a flip chart, whiteboard, or piece of paper—something the parties can face, instead of facing each other. Have them talk about the issue (maybe it’s “stealing of ideas”), not about each other, much like surgeons talk about the patient on the table not about their opinions of each other’s capabilities. This form of discussion creates a level of detachment that’s helpful at reducing personal criticism.
5. Defuse anger with curiosity. In Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston reveals that it is very difficult for someone to both be curious and angry at the same time. Because of this, you as facilitator can ask first the victim and then the persecutor the following questions about the other:
- What is your interpretation of what s/he was thinking when s/he said or did?
- How do you think s/he felt given that interpretation?
- Based on that interpretation and feeling, how might you behave in the same circumstance?
The victim and persecutor’s curiosity will defuse their anger, at least long enough for them to see the conflict from another perspective. They can then direct their curiosity onto how to resolve the conflict, now that they are not hijacked by their amygdalas.
6. Convert criticism into a commitment. Victims and persecutors get some of their power from criticism, and that criticism can be cancerous—to them, coworkers, and the organization. In Immunity to Change, Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Keegan argue that criticism is simply a commitment put in negative terms. Laskey and Keegan encourage would-be criticizers to rephrase their criticism in positive terms. Instead of criticizing a marketing manager’s performance, for instance, victims might simply say how committed they are to a marketing manager who meets objectives. Following the authors’ logic, if you want to know what you really care about, start checking out what you are criticizing and convert it to a commitment. And when you’re listening to someone else rant, tell that person what it sounds like he’s committed to. You’ll reduce the amount of criticism you both say and hear.
7. Convert criticism into a request. Charlie Pellerin recommends converting criticism into a request. In his book, How NASA Builds Teams, he says that if you can’t think of a request you want to make, you’re better off saying nothing. Like Lahey and Keegan, Pellerin doesn’t find criticism (on its own) productive.
Getting and Staying out of the Drama Triangle
It’s tempting to play victim, persecutor, and rescuer at times, but leaders need to encourage and practice direct conversation and get out of playing any of these roles, as tempting as they may be. And they can be tempting because leaders are often asked to play the role of rescuer. Being a rescuer can feed one’s ego, but leaders need to remember that playing these roles lead to divisiveness. Reducing triangulation, on the other hand, leads to an increase in accountability—far better for leaders than a short-lived ego boost.
If you’re interested in further reading, I recommend checking out The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald. Emerald created an alternative system/triangle that is virtuous instead of vicious that seems to address these negative archetypes in an affirming manner.