How to Break the Drama Triangle and Unite a Disjointed Workforce
The Drama Triangle limits the effectiveness of relationships and team development. Here’s how leaders can overcome it by using mindful and insight-oriented strategies from Relational Intelligence Expert and Executive Coach Joe Mazzenga.
As a CEO, you may find yourself leading a talented team of individuals hindered by persistent issues and a lack of synergy. Does your organization operate in harmony like a symphony orchestra, creating beautiful music? Or are leaders working to stay in their lanes like a swim team?
If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. Many high-performing companies face some level of dysfunction, causing leaders to question their role in these challenges. The truth is that stress often triggers unproductive, anxiety-driven behaviors, leading to trust deficits and talent attrition. While in conflict, people can become distracted and struggle with overcoming their emotional responses.
This pattern is known as the Drama Triangle. It’s a psychological concept that can stifle effective leadership and team development. Most organizations will not be effective with a swim team model at the top. So, if you sense something obstructing your team’s synergy but can’t identify it, consider this a guide for a breakthrough. The following details how the Drama Triangle may be affecting your team along with four steps to resolve organizational conflict and boost team performance.
The Drama Triangle Explained
The Karpman Drama Triangle, a concept furthered by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968, outlines three roles that surface during conflict: the Victim, the Rescuer, and the Persecutor. Initially, psychiatrists used the Drama Triangle in families to analyze family dynamics. But it is also applicable to workplace conflict. Karpman defined the roles as follows:
The Victim – “Poor me.”
This person feels trapped and powerless, blaming persecutors for their predicament. They seek out Rescuers to solve their issues for them. This hinders their own problem-solving abilities and reinforces their helpless stance. They remain unfulfilled, without achievements, and stuck in their current state. A Victim’s internal dialogue may tell them:
Why does this happen to me? If only they would change. I feel used.
The Rescuer – “Let me help you.”
Rescuers derive value from saving others. They strive to rescue the Victim, often neglecting their own personal needs. This enables the Victim’s powerlessness and interferes with their growth opportunity to step out of their role. The Rescuer’s solutions keep the Victims dependent on them, resulting in their own burnout, resentment, and overwhelm. With no time to develop themselves or look in the mirror, Rescuers can avoid their own issues. Their internal dialogue may suggest:
I can solve this; let me take care of this for you. I can do this better than you. You need help.
The Persecutor – “It’s all your fault.”
Think of the Persecutor as the critical and controlling parent, too strict and authoritarian. Carrying a superiority complex, they intensify the Victim’s helpless feelings through bullying and judgment. They blame Victims and criticize Rescuers without offering any real help, assistance, or solutions—just criticism. They lead with rigidity and lack empathy. The Persecutor’s internal dialogue may include:
If they would just do [blank], then I wouldn’t have to. I don’t care what they think or feel. I know better; what’s wrong with them?
Under stress, people can fall into any of these roles, leading to ineffective responses to conflict like shame (Victim), blame (Persecutor), and strain (Rescuer). Often, individuals switch roles to alleviate tension temporarily, but without addressing the root, drama inevitably resurfaces. And if you observe closely, each character plays a role in creating the other. This is why the cycle continues and is hard to break.
Drama Triangle Solutions
The Drama Triangle’s impact on team development can be detrimental, leading to stifled innovation, compromised psychological safety, and heightened stress levels. These factors negatively affect productivity and profitability.
As an executive relationship expert, I’ve seen how unawareness can disrupt team cohesion. But there’s a silver lining. These behaviors can be overcome, transforming leadership and fostering a healthier work environment. Below are four strategies proven to help teams escape the Drama Triangle’s destructive cycle and unify the workforce.
1. Step Off the Triangle
People can consciously shift their perspectives and behavior. One individual’s commitment to authentic behaviors can dramatically influence relationships, teams, and the entire organization. By taking full responsibility for oneself, you transition from the triangle’s roles to authentic leadership. This change transforms the Drama Triangle into a Winner Triangle, rooted in passion and empowerment and focused on solutions and outcomes—not blame, shame, or strain.
The first step towards escaping the Drama Triangle is recognizing your role in it. By developing self-awareness, leaders can identify their Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer tendencies and opt for a more effective approach. Key aspects of self-awareness include:
- Emotional Awareness – Understand your emotions and their impact on others.
- Self-Assessment – Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, accept feedback, and stay open to new perspectives for continuous self-improvement.
- Self-confidence – Be certain of your worth and abilities, independent of external validation. Voice your views, even if they’re unpopular, and stand firm in upholding company values.
3. Emotional IntelligenceEnhancing emotional intelligence (EQ) enables executives to effectively comprehend and manage their own emotions and those of others during conflict, fostering improved communication and empathy. A practical way to boost EQ is by identifying stress reactions in crisis situations. Even minor conflicts can trigger stress responses known as fight, flight, or freeze. In these reactionary moments, we enter the Drama Triangle and default to old patterns that kept us safe—in a predictable fashion—often in childhood. But these patterns may not be the best way to interact with colleagues as adults.
We introduce a practical tool to improve EQ in our webinar called Above the Line/Below the Line. Applying this tool helps leaders practice self-awareness and mindful behaviors in moments of crisis.
4. Partner with an Executive CoachWorking with an executive coach can offer tailored guidance and support to combat the Drama Triangle’s effects. These professionals can help identify when and where the triangle manifests within you and your team. Moreover, they can provide insight-oriented strategies and techniques to overcome these patterns, ultimately fostering a healthier, more productive work environment.
By understanding the triangle’s patterns and implementing strategies to break free from its grip, executive leaders can create a more empowered and productive workplace. This transformation not only benefits the individual leader but also contributes to the overall success and well-being of their team and organization.
We are passionate about helping executive leaders and teams navigate these challenges and achieve their full potential. If you’re faced with this disruption and need a plan of action, contact us to explore how we can improve your workplace culture together.