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Understanding the Drama Triangle at Work

Jun 14, 2024 | Coaching Skills, Emotional intelligence, Leadership, Organisation politics, Political savvy

Have you ever felt like a difficult relationship at work plays out like a drama? You might even find yourself caught up in this drama without realising it.

It’s not easy to admit, but drama is a common way of expressing what’s going on around us. We might not always verbalise it, but it’s there. 

 In this blog, we’ll be shedding light on the drama triangle and will explain how we can work with it to understand relational difficulties at work, our reactions to situations, and others’ behaviors. You can also listen to our podcast for an in depth piece.

Jump to Each Section

 

Understanding the Drama Triangle

The drama triangle, developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968, helps us make sense of relationship patterns and thought processes. Based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis, it describes how we all play these roles at different times in our lives, both at work and at home.

The drama triangle specifically identifies three roles people often unconsciously play in conflict: the Victim, the Hero, and the Villain.

We all play these roles at times. These are not just roles that others play! Understanding these roles can help us navigate and resolve relational difficulties in various aspects of life.

 

The Drama Triangle - Bailey Balfour

Meet the Villain – Character in the Drama Triangle 

Villain: Blames and accuses others, believing they know best. They might say, “It’s your fault we’re in this mess” or “You clearly can’t do this job well.”

Characteristics: The villain adopts a controlling, blaming, and critical stance. They may assert their authority and superiority, believing that others are at fault for problems and that strict measures are necessary to correct issues.

Behavior: Villains often say things like, “It’s your fault,” “You’re wrong,” or “You need to do it my way.” They focus on punishment and blame rather than solutions. They see the person as the weak link.

Impact: While they may feel justified in their actions, villains can create a hostile and demoralising environment, leading to resentment and conflict. People around them will feel belittled or annoyed themselves. This can lead to stress or others feeling devalued and ultimately demoralised. Productivity will go down and you’ll soon realise that it’s hard to retain people in your organisation.

Meet the Victim – Character in the Drama Triangle 

Victim: Feels helpless, avoids responsibility, and hopes someone will rescue them. They might say,I can’t do anything rightorNobody understands how hard this is for me.”

Characteristics: The Victim feels oppressed, helpless, powerless, ashamed, and unable to make decisions or take control of their situation. They often see themselves as the one who is being wronged and look for someone to rescue them.

Behavior: Victims often say things like,Poor me,” “It’s not my fault,orI can’t do anything about it.They seek sympathy and support from others but do not take active steps to change their situation. “It’s not my responsibility? I can’t do anything right. Nobody understands how hard this is for me. I have no power to change the situation.”

Impact: While they may seek sympathy and help, Victims can also frustrate others with their perceived passivity and refusal to take responsibility. Victims can be seen either as not competent enough or unable to manage their work.

Meet the Hero – Character in the Drama Triangle 

Hero: Steps in to help others, often hurting their own well-being. 

Characteristics: The hero sees themselves as the hero or saviour, stepping in to save the Victim. They derive a sense of purpose and self-worth from helping others, often hurting their own needs. 

Behavior: Heroes often say things like, “Let me help you,” “I can fix this,” or “You need me.” They take on more than their fair share of responsibilities. I clearly am the one who needs to help here. I’m responsible for everything. You can’t do it without me. It’s down to me to carry others

In the long term, this can lead to them taking the Hero for granted or being depended on and seeing them only in the role of ‘housekeeper and cleaner’ of team messes. There can be resentment at the other end of rescuing.

Impact: While initially appreciated, heroes can foster dependency, disempowering the Victim and causing frustration when their efforts are not acknowledged or reciprocated.

In the long term, this can lead to them taking the rescuer for granted or being depended on and seeing them only in the role of ‘housekeeper and cleaner’ of team messes. There can be resentment at the other end of rescuing.

The Drama Triangle in Action – Here’s a Scenario 

Imagine you’re part of a team where the pressure is rising because the business isn’t making enough money. People start feeling the pressure.

Meet Sarah, the team leader, who is under immense pressure from her line manager. She starts pushing the team hard, accepting no excuses, and not allowing anyone to say no to work. She sees no way out except to make everyone do more to keep her boss happy.

Meanwhile, Sarb, a new and junior team member, is struggling. He doesn’t fully understand the work yet and ends up with increasing responsibilities. He feels out of his depth, takes work home, and starts complaining to his partner about how unfair his boss is. In the office, he looks miserable and even considers leaving.

Joe, an experienced team member, notices Sarb’s struggle and starts taking on extra work to help him out. Joe’s workload increases, and he feels more pressure, but he can’t stand seeing Sarb suffer under Sarah’s demands.

This scenario is a classic example of the drama triangle, with three roles at play:

  • Sarah becomes the Villain or Persecutor, pushing the team relentlessly.
  • Sarb feels like the Victim, overwhelmed and helpless.
  • Joe steps in as the Hero or Rescuer, taking on more to help Sarb.

No one is happy, and everyone feels trapped in this cycle. Over time, the players may switch roles. Sarb might accuse Sarah of being unfair, becoming the Villain, while Sarah feels like a Victim, stuck between her boss and her team. Joe, trying to smooth things over, might snap and move to either the Victim or Villain role.

How do we Move Past the Drama

In every situation, a good starting point is to ensure we come out feeling okay about our behavior. This isn’t always easy, especially when dealing with workplace politics, difficult bosses, or challenging colleagues. However, maintaining a sense of integrity and presence helps us avoid actions we might regret later. Using the drama triangle model as a framework, we can better navigate these complex interactions.

Step 1 – Recognising Our Role in the Drama

The first and most challenging step in creating positive change is recognising our part in the drama. It’s easier to stay in the drama and see ourselves as passive participants rather than active contributors. Yet, remaining in the drama prevents effective communication and resolution.

Once we accept our role, we can begin to move forward. This requires shifting to an adult state of presence—being open, honest, and willing to act with integrity. You can follow up with our exercise on Self-awareness to help you with this. 

Step 2 – Breaking Free from the Drama Triangle

If You’re the Victim

Identify what you truly want to happen. What is the outcome you are looking for? Be honest with the persecutor and don’t sit silent.

For instance, if you’re struggling in a new job, book a meeting with your boss to discuss your challenges. Clearly express your situation and seek solutions. Define your responsibilities and communicate them effectively.

Coaching Questions

  • What triggered you to feel like the victim?
  • If you were feeling more adult in this situation what would need to change?
  • How could you share this with the other people in the triangle?
  • What is your ideal outcome from the situation?
If You’re the Hero

Notice your tendency to jump into a problem and resist it. Instead, adopt a coaching approach to help others resolve their issues.

Spend time with the person you’re rescuing to understand their perspective and guide them in finding their solutions. Setting boundaries and supporting others in problem-solving can prevent dependency and promote empowerment.

Coaching Questions

  • What triggered you to feel like the Hero?
  • How can you let go of trying to resolve this situation?
  • What can you do to support the other person without rescuing them?
If You’re the Villain

Be kind to yourself. Recognise the pressure you’re under and seek ways to address it without being harsh to others. If necessary, apologise and suggest working together to find a constructive way forward.

Focus on solutions rather than blame, and work empathetically to understand others’ needs. Here are some resources to help you become more emotionally intelligent and work in your healthy state in times of stress. 

Coaching Questions

  • What triggered you to feel like the Villain?
  • What are you trying to achieve in this situation?
  • What can you do to bring this about through collaboration or any other approach?

 

How can Leaders Help?

If you notice a ‘drama’ playing out in your team, the first thing is not to join in. Aim to remain independent and in a calm state.

Working with a coaching approach you can spend time with each person involved, helping them identify what they need in the situation, and help them create a plan to bring this about. Maybe you can facilitate an open conversation, or work on role alignment or any issue that may be the cause of the drama. 

 

What Happens if Nothing Works and the Drama Persists?

 

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Sometimes people are very stuck in their roles and don’t want to move off the drama triangle. In this case, the first rule is to work hard to remain calm and in the adult mode. Ask someone to help you with this – maybe a coach. Work out what you need to do to look after yourself whilst you are in the midst of the drama. Look at any options you have to have less exposure to the drama. 

 

To summarise:

  1. Be aware: Recognise that we are part of the drama and own our role in it. Pinpoint which character you may be playing and ask yourself reflective questions to move to the next step 
  2. Be open: Move to an adult state, where we act with integrity and openness.
  3. Communicate: Express our needs and seek solutions. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, book a meeting with your boss to discuss your workload and find a way forward.
  4. Set boundaries: Rescuers should resist the urge to take over and instead coach others to solve their problems.
  5. Show empathy: Villains should acknowledge their pressure and seek kinder ways to manage situations.

 Here are more resources you can discover to learn how you can navigate workplace drama. 

1. How to Give Feedback and Handle Tough Discussions at Work

2. Being Emotionally Intelligent at Work

3. Access Free Masterclass: Neuroscience of Misery at Work

Key sources

  1. Stephen Karpman’s Original Work:
    • Karpman, S. (1968). “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis.” Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26), 39-43. This is Karpman’s seminal paper introducing the drama triangle.
  2. Books on Transactional Analysis:
    • Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Grove Press. This book outlines the foundational concepts of Transactional Analysis, which Karpman built upon.
    • Berne, E. (1972). What Do You Say After You Say Hello? New York: Bantam Books. This further explores Transactional Analysis and its applications.
  3. Further Readings and Resources:
    • Karpman, S. (2014). A Game Free Life. Drama Triangle Publications. In this book, Karpman elaborates on the drama triangle and its implications in everyday life.
    • Harris, T.A. (1969). I’m OK, You’re OK. New York: Harper & Row. This book provides an accessible introduction to Transactional Analysis

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Jean Balfour ICF Accredited Professional Coach and Managing Director of Bailey Balfour

Jean Balfour

Founder & Programmes Director

Singapore

About the Author

Jean Balfour is Managing Director of Bailey Balfour and Programme Director of our ICF Accredited Coach Training Programmes. Jean is passionate about helping people to have good conversations both at work and at home. She believes that coaching is a life skill and that you never regret learning to coach.

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