When three’s a conflict, it’s time to address the Drama Triangle in our workplace interactions.
In 1964, Dr Eric Berne – father of transactional analysis – published Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships.
Described by author Kurt Vonnegut as “a brilliant, amusing and clear catalogue of the psychological theatricals that human beings play over and again”, this introduced Berne’s concept of ‘games’: recurring patterns of interaction that rely on plausible cover stories to conceal ulterior, often unconscious motives.
To give an example, the original stimulus for the ‘games’ concept was Berne’s recognition of ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But’, which involves a player grumbling about a problem and inviting others to come up with solutions – rejecting each one in turn. As Berne explained, the true object is “to demonstrate that no one can give them an acceptable suggestion”.
Role-playing power games
One insidious ‘game’ commonly played in the workplace – albeit unconsciously – is The Drama Triangle, identified by Dr Stephen Karpman, a student of Berne’s. This dynamic model of social interaction comprises three archetypal (dysfunctional) personas – victim, persecutor and rescuer – trapped in a ceaseless cycle of conflict, and switching between roles, without resolution.
Their characteristics are as follows:
- Persecutor: “It’s all your fault!” The villain of the piece: controlling, oppressive, critical and superior whose power is expressed with aggression.
- Victim: “Poor me!” The passive and persecuted underdog who feels hopeless and powerless and is unable to make decisions, solve problems or take pleasure in life. Victims subconsciously seek out persecutors and rescuers to absolve themselves of responsibility for failure. The latter save the day, but perpetuate victims’ feelings of helplessness.
- Rescuer: “Let me help you!” The classic hero: an enabler who feels guilty if they don’t go to the rescue. Rescuers find value in being needed by others, but their actions are really an avoidance of their own problems, and their interventions sticking plasters rather than sustainable solutions.
The persecutor echoes the ‘Critical Parent’ ego state under Berne’s transactional analysis, while the Victim resembles the ‘Adaptive Child’. The dynamics may also sound familiar because the plots of most novels, films and TV programmes are based on the Drama Triangle (‘good cop, bad cop’ being a classic variation).
Take a quick quiz to gain insight into the roles you tend to default to in drama triangles.
Shapeshifting through different roles
A dysfunctional triangle arises when one person takes on the role of victim or persecutor, triggering others to adopt the symbiotic roles. We each have our own starting gate (or habitual role) that we tend to fall into when initiating or joining a conflict situation, though none of these roles is actually authentic. Our default choice harks back to the ideas and beliefs we formed about ourselves in early childhood; a Drama Triangle constitutes role play rather than a genuine interaction.
Neither are roles static: participants can shapeshift between persecutor, victim and rescuer very easily, with a change in one player’s role provoking an evolution in all three.
An office-based example might be:
Disgruntled manager (tapping watch): “Thanks for turning up late again, Chris. We have a tight deadline and we’re short-staffed. It’s pretty selfish.” (Persecutor)
Late colleague: “I’m really sorry! It wasn’t my fault today; the trains were delayed, and my commute is a nightmare.” (Victim)
Disgruntled manager: “Yeah, well, I see you had time to get a coffee on the way?” (Persecutor)
Co-worker: “To be fair, the trains were awful this morning, and I can help with some of the extra work.” (Rescuer) “Anyway, it’s alright for you, you can drive in – unlike most of us.” (shifts to Persecutor)
Disgruntled manager: “Yes, ok, I have allocated parking, but I have a bad back, so I can’t walk far; I know other people resent it.” (shifts to Victim)
Late colleague: “Nobody holds that against you! You’ve worked here the longest anyway.” (shifts to Rescuer)
Co-worker: “Well my back’s bad too; I wish somebody would look into allocated parking for more of us, I hate getting the train.” (shifts to Victim)
Here, the rescuer turns persecutor, changing the dynamics, which then change and change again.
Note that it can also be a short hop from victim to persecutor – the roles are two sides of the same coin. A literary example can be found in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, set during the Salem witch trials of 1692, which led to 19 people being hanged and many others imprisoned.
Miller’s dramatisation sees a young woman, Abigail Williams (caught participating in superstitious rituals), deflect charges of witchcraft by accusing those around her, swiftly moving from victim to ruthless oppressor. Throughout the play, we see dynamics shift, as others are accused and follow Abigail’s lead – falsely accusing their peers in order to save their own skins.
The pattern is only broken when a minority of victims step out of the Drama Triangle altogether, refusing to lie by acknowledging their own guilt or pointing the finger at others. For example, octogenarian Giles Corey, who is tortured under heavy stones, calls for “more weight” rather than adopting the persecutor role.
The dangers of victimhood
While persecuting others is clearly negative, acting from the victim state can be equally damaging. Victims tend to have external locus of control (generally believing that their successes or failures result from factors beyond their control, such as luck, fate, circumstance, injustice or bias), and a fixed, rather than growth, mindset. Those playing the role of victim may avoid challenging situations, taking risks and innovation of any kind, becoming defensive when challenged about their own behaviours.
Instead of reflecting, learning and evolving, victims often ruminate unhelpfully on their thoughts, feelings and status; however, to help rather than harm, reflection must bring ‘insight’, which is associated with greater feelings of autonomy, mastery, purpose and self-acceptance.
Adopting a ‘victimhood mindset’ may also lead to ‘black-and-white thinking’. This reduces our empathy for other people’s pain and suffering, leading to moral elitism (“I’m always right"), a blanket characterisation of ‘persecutors’ as “evil sinners” and a justification for the persecution of others. Legitimising aggression towards persecutors turns victims into persecutors, continuing the cycle, as outlined above.
This is worth bearing in mind in an era of online shaming and debates around our alleged ‘cancel culture’.
From drama to empowerment
Escaping the Drama Triangle involves turning it on its head by creating a positive variant and working from a state of ‘presence’ as a leader.
In 1990, Acey Choy created The Winner’s Triangle, based on the grown-up characteristics we can all develop to challenge the classic Drama Triangle roles. In Choy’s model:
Persecutors use their assertiveness to offer constructive challenge to help others to develop.
Rescuers show their caring side, listening to others and helping them to find their own way.
Victims accept their vulnerability and realise they have agency too. They take responsibility and become problem-solvers.
The Power of TED’s Empowerment Triangle identifies new grown-up roles based on similar characteristics:
The Persecutor becomes a Challenger.
The Rescuer becomes a Coach.
The Victim becomes a Creator.
Challenging the Drama Triangle involves accepting responsibility for our positions without asserting power over others; behaving, in transactional analysis terms, like 'Adults'.
Practically, this means becoming more self-aware, identifying patterns in interactions and changing our own role within them – prompting others to do the same; as in dysfunctional triangles, a change in one player’s role can provoke a change in all three.
The Empowerment Triangle’s challenger moves from a harsh and critical persecutor to ‘firm but fair’. In this role, they address problems constructively, showing assertiveness rather than aggression, and set out the consequences of negative behaviour. This allows the other party to retain self-respect and ownership of their actions.
The shift puts the victim in a new role of problem-solver and creator, addressing issues proactively and positively. In this, they are supported by the rescuer, who takes a step back to become a teacher or coach, equipping the ‘creator’ to solve problems for themselves. This gives the rescuer time to reflect on any issues of their own that they might be avoiding.
By turning a drama into an opportunity for empowerment, the same office conversation might run something like this:
Frustrated manager (looking to amend behaviour): “Chris, we need to speak about the fact that you’re often late for work. You know we’re busy and it’s just not fair on everyone else.” (Challenger)
Late colleague: “I’m really sorry. I’ve been having some problems at home and I’m finding it difficult to leave the house on time, but I’m thinking about how to make changes.” (Creator)
Frustrated manager: “Ok, let’s book in some time to talk about some possible solutions.” (Challenger)
Co-worker: “Chris, might it be worth looking into allocated parking? Then you could drive in, rather than having to make a specific train? (Coach)
“And didn’t we talk about potentially introducing core hours, with flexibility on start and end times, and occasional homeworking? What happened to that idea?” (shifts to Challenger)
Frustrated manager: “Yes, I admit I’ve been bogged down with other things, but I’ll raise that again with the board in our next meeting.” (shifts to Creator)
Late colleague: “I’ll definitely look into the parking situation. I could help you set up a survey about core hours if that would help make the case? (Creator shifting to Coach)
Co-worker: “That’s a good idea. I’m the least techie person, so we could do with your input on that.” (shifts to Creator)
Nipping drama triangles in the bud is no easy task, especially where others initiate them. However, by learning to change our own roles and responses we can influence those of our colleagues, encouraging more productive patterns all round.
As Harvard Business School’s professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out: “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.”
Test your understanding
- Outline Karpman’s Drama Triangle and the different roles people play within it.
- Describe how we can turn this into a model of empowerment by adapting the roles.
What does it mean for you?
- Take the Drama Triangle Quiz to discover your default role.
- Consider drama triangles at work and how you might adapt your role in these to make interactions more constructive.
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