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06.06.18

Beyond the Drama Triangle

Beyond Drama Triangle

Y
OU’VE HEARD of the Bermuda Triangle, where ships and aircraft disappear without explanation. There’s a workplace equivalent, a triangle where good will and productivity vanish. How many working hours of the average day do you and your team spend in the Drama Triangle?

This triangle was developed as a social model years ago by Stephen Karpman, a student of Dr. Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis. It maps out a type of dysfunctional interaction that is common in the workplace and in our homes as well. The word “dysfunctional” is nothing to be afraid of – it just means “not working very well.” Effective leaders notice when their relationships are working and when they aren’t … and as a result, they learn to stay out of the Drama Triangle.

Karpman used this triangle to define three points that arise predictably in any dysfunctional real-life drama: the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. Notice that all three of these are roles we can choose to play, or choose to step back from, at any time.

So for instance, let’s assume that one of your team members promised you an update about an important project by Tuesday afternoon. It’s Wednesday morning. You don’t have the report yet. Here are three ways you could choose to respond:
  • “I said that report was due Tuesday and I meant it!” (Persecutor. This role sends the message “It’s all your fault,” typically in the voice of a critical parent.)
  • “There are three important meetings today that depended on me seeing that report from you … and now I’m going to crash and burn at all three.” (Victim. This role is all about “Poor me.”)
  • “Look -- send me the data you have and I’ll finish that report for you.” (Rescuer. The classic enabler.)

Every time you see one of these roles emerge, or find yourself tempted to play one of them, you can be certain that the Drama Triangle is beckoning … and you’re about to get sucked into it. One classic pattern is: boss attacks (Persecutor), people defend themselves (Victim), other people come to their aid (Rescuer). Be honest. How often do you really want to do that? Here’s what’s important to notice: The Drama Triangle is a game. If you choose to play, you’ll be asking for an exchange that’s high on conflict and denial, and low on resourcefulness, self-awareness, and win/win outcomes.

The problem is, it’s easy to play this game without even realizing that you’re playing, and easy to become addicted to drama without realizing you’re addicted to it. A lot of the leaders we work with are shocked to learn that most of their workplace interactions fall within this dysfunctional triangle! The leader’s title typically means he or she is given the responsibility of judging or dictating … and that can be a slippery slope toward the Persecutor role. If you’re not careful, you can spend the majority of their working hours playing this game. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The very first step to overcoming a drama addiction is simply to learn to recognize what’s happening. Start noticing that that the Drama Triangle game typically begins with one person – it could be you – taking up the Persecutor or Victim role. If you sense a piece of communication coming from your side that is some variation on “It’s all your fault” or “Poor me,” step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if that’s really the only way you can express yourself. It’s possible you’ll come up with a better way of approaching the situation – one that doesn’t simply invite the other person to intensify the drama. For instance:
  • “I know you’ve been really busy with a lot of different projects lately, but is there any way you could get me that report we talked about by one o’clock today? If not, could you think of anyone else we can get to help you out with it?”
  • Or, even better, give the person a chance not to fall into the trap at all. Send a note well ahead of time reminding them about the project and when it’s due. Leave people enough time to readjust before the deadline.

No blame. No drama. Just good communication!

Your responsibility as a leader is to support your people, start good conversations, and make good outcomes possible. The Drama Triangle goes in the exact opposite direction of all three of those goals: it disempowers your team, starts lousy conversations, and makes terrible outcomes much more likely. If you spend even one minute a day in the Drama Triangle, that’s one minute too much.

The only way to win this particular game to resolve not to play – and then stick with that decision!

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Leading Forum
This post is by David Mattson. He is CEO and President of Sandler Training, and author of The Road To Excellence: 6 Leadership Strategies to Build a Bulletproof Business. He oversees the corporate direction and strategy for the company's global operations including sales, marketing, consulting, alliances, and support. Under Mattson's leadership, the Sandler organization expanded domestically and internationally to over 250 offices in 32 countries. For more information, please visit the Road to Excellence website.

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Editor’s Note: The Road To Excellence asks the question, “What, exactly, stands between my company and organizational excellence—and what do I do about it?” David Mattson identifies 14 blind spots that have the potential to kill a business. The problem of course, is seeing what you don’t know. The Excellence Process consists of six steps that when taken in order and made part of your culture will turn excellence into a process and help to get rid of your blind spots.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:03 AM
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