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Breaking through the drama

Earlier this year, a one-on-one individual coaching client wanted to discuss and find a way to address a difficult relationship with one of her work peers. Also, she was not able to convince her manager to acknowledge, understand and – more importantly – act on it in a productive and constructive way.

Due to privacy reasons, I don’t want to use her real name. So, let’s call her ‘Susie’. Whilst Susie has a unique set of skills and experiences, her situation is not entirely unique. Workplace conflict and difficult conversations are happening – or being avoided! – in organisations around the world right now.

There are a number of tools that can be used to help address workplace conflict. I wrote about one recently: Kim Scott’s Radical Candor framework. How avoiding difficult conversations doesn’t help anyone.

For Susie’s situation, I chose the Karpman drama triangle. Wikipedia describes it as:

‘The Karpman drama triangle is a social model of human interaction proposed by Stephen B. Karpman. The triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis. The triangle of actors in the drama are persecutors, victims and rescuers.’

How the Karpman drama triangle works

The Karpman drama triangle is used to map and understand power conflicts and the roles people play. Karpman identified three (often unconscious) roles in action during a conflict:

  • Persecutor: The ‘villain’. Controlling and oppressive. If confronted and blamed for their actions, the victim may switch to the persecutor role.
  • Rescuer: A classic enabler. They don’t let the victim fail on their own. Their rescuing can have negative effects. They can become a persecutor if they can’t effect change.
  • Victim: Someone who feels or acts like a victim. They’ve convinced themselves – and sometimes others – that nothing can be done.

The triangle is initiated when someone becomes the victim or persecutor. Each acting on their own needs rather than the will to resolve the matter. People often play the same role in different situations, repeating the same behaviour.

Once the behaviour is mapped and understood, there is opportunity to alter the approach to the conflict:

  • Persecutor 🡪 challenger: Respectful and direct feedback that involve positive solutions.
  • Rescuer 🡪 coach: Support and feedback without direct involvement in the situation.
  • Victim 🡪 creator/thriver: To shed victim mentality and proactively engage the situation.
Diagram of the Karpman drama triangle, with rescuer/coach in the right-hand corner, victim/creator/thriver at the bottom and persecutor/challenger to the left.
Image source: Assured Strategy

Susie’s breakthrough – proactively changing unhealthy workplace interactions

So how did Susie go after we applied the Karpman drama triangle to her situation?

Her situation wasn’t a clear Karpman drama triangle as she wasn’t a victim per se, nor was her colleague a true persecutor. Yet the framework gave a lens for examining the unhealthy dynamics, which she then chose to proactively address.

Susie went to a full team meeting – where all three were present – feeling clear and empowered in herself and the team. She chose to take on a more ‘observer’ role. She was an active participant in discussions about her and her team’s work, and she provided value adding input. But she didn’t try to fix everything else that was going on around her, which she had done in the past.

Then, a breakthrough! In their next one-on-one, Susie’s manager acknowledged some of the challenges and said that he would take on more of a coaching role with her work peer. Susie stepping back from the ‘fixer’ role meant that the challenges with Susie’s peer were clearer for him to see.

The result was a more positive triangle. Susie feels empowered in her workplace. Her manager has taken on the coaching role. A more equal and constructive relationship with her work peer.

This is a great example of identifying behaviour, taking control and proactively changing unhealthy workplace dynamics. You can wait for the other person/people to change… or you can change it up yourself and see what happens.

We’ve all been there. I’d love to hear from you about how you’ve fostered healthy workplace interactions in the past. What are some of the tools and tactics that have worked for you?

Ideas to Action

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