More recently I have seen Karpman’s Drama/Victim triangle play out among leaders and their teams. I do not know if it is because of COVID and people being in survival mode, or if it is just our humanness showing up more boldly. When people feel sorry for themselves, or feel that something is unjustified, they begin to become resentful and blame others. Individuals are more blame focused than solution-focused, and I see more of the drama/victim behaviors apparent in culture and engagement comments and results.
The Karpman triangle was developed by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman in 1968 as a model of human interaction that can occur among individuals in conflict.
Exhibit One shows the Karpman Drama Triangle and the three roles that are a part of the triangle: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. I will interpret these three roles from the viewpoint of my analysis of culture and engagement.
This is typically the individual contributor who has less power than the others in the triangle and who is resentful for a variety of reasons. This person is not necessarily a victim but feels like one.
- Working onsite (when others get to work remotely)
- Not feeling appreciated by upper management
- Feeling like they deserve hazard pay for showing up for work
- Feel picked on
This person feels hopeless, powerless, and unable to make decisions or solve problems. They pass blame to others when they are faced with situations they do not like, especially with any type of feedback they do not agree with, constructive or otherwise.
The Rescuer (The Hero):
This role is viewed as the hero in the situation and the person trying to save the victim. This person is an enabler and typically feels guilty if they do not save the victim. In my example, this is the direct supervisor of the individual contributor or team members that play the victim. This person feels value by being needed by others.
This individual wants to be liked above all things and reminds the victim that they will protect them from the persecutor. This individual will typically use the word “they” in describing the senior leadership and CEO of an organization. This individual focuses their energy on someone else (the persecutor) to feel better about their involvement in the drama or their own problems.
When this relationship occurs between the team members and their direct supervisor, culture scores will typically show up as the team not believing in the direction of the organization. Additionally, the team will believe that senior management does not know what is going on and that they are not operating by strong values.
Meanwhile, the team loves their manager. They feel that their manager cares about their concerns, helps them learn and grow, and helps them maximize their full potential. The Rescuer continues to perpetuate this language about “us versus them” until the Victim genuinely believes that the manager is amazing, and the organization, and senior leaders of that organization are out to get them.
The persecutor is depicted as the person (or group of people) that is blamed for how the victim feels.
I will start by describing the “unknowing persecutor.” This is the senior leadership team that is unaware of the drama going on between the Rescuer and Victim. The Rescuer is setting up the senior leadership team as The Persecutor so the manager can take on the role of Rescuer. Unbeknownst to the senior leaders, their managers are creating fiefdoms on their own behalf without recognizing that by doing this, they are not being effective leaders within the organization.
The other role that a senior manager can take is that of a real Persecutor who manages with an iron fist. This type of leader is an authoritative leader and expects individuals to do as they say. This individual can be blaming, critical, rigid, and feels superior to others.
In my recent experience, the drama typically plays out with the senior leadership team being both unknowing and sometimes authoritarian. The combination leads to the drama triangle continuing.
Here is a simple example of what I am seeing play out in the culture data. This is an example of branch locations at a university or financial institution.
The branch employees do not like what is going on at the branch. The manager blames senior leaders and states they do not know what is going on. The manager says they have spoken directly to the senior leaders, and the leaders refuse to budge on certain decisions. The manager may then say, that is okay- we will do it my way so that you (the employee) are not burdened with the decisions being made at the senior level.
This sets up the paradox because who knows what the senior leaders said, or if the manager even spoke to the senior leadership team about the concern.
What Should We Do About the Karpman Drama/Victim Triangle?
- Identify the problem and address it with transparency. It may be that individuals involved are unknowingly playing a role in the triangle. Identify the behaviors that are showing up and form a strategic alliance on continued identification of the behaviors that cause this conflict to occur.
- Increase Emotional Intelligence of all participants through coaching, assessments, and training and development.
- Move to an The Empowerment Dynamic (TED), created by David Emerald and Donna Zajoric. This dynamic resolves the disempowering dynamic of the Drama Triangle. TED moves to purpose and presence and helps individuals transition to growth mindset and above the line thinking. These new roles are more creative, aligned, and energized.
- The Victim into a Creator
- The Persecutor into a Challenger
- The Rescuer into a Coach
The Victim feels life is happening to them and they typically feel powerless, stuck, and helpless. The Creator believes that individuals own their own power to choose, respond and focus on the outcomes.
The Victim turns into the Creator and begins looking forward taking more of an optimistic approach versus blaming and focusing on the past.
The Rescuer is overly focused on removing immediate pain without looking at the root cause and typically rushes in to do the work themselves as a hero would do. The Coach does not try to fix things, seeing everyone fully capable and empowered to take control of their own destiny. The Coach supports and facilitates conversations through asking questions to gain clarity.
The Persecutor asks why and places blame. The Challenger provides healthy pressure in dealing with situations to evoke learning, growth, and action. The Challenger supports a more creative, engaged, and productive organizational culture.
View this You Tube video to further understand the drama triangle.