How often do we show up as the Persecutor? The Rescuer? The Victim?
1: Back in 1968, Harvard Professor Stephen Karpman introduced a concept called the Drama Triangle.
“The Drama Triangle consists of the three roles people tend to take when they feel threatened—Persecutor, Victim, or Rescuer—to deal with their underlying feelings of stress or self-doubt,” writes Dr. Daniel Friedland in Leading Well from Within.
“The Persecutor, whether a bad boss or domineering parent, gets his or her power by fighting to control or dominate the Victim,” Danny explains.
“The Victim feels disempowered and threatened and may take flight in self-pity, blaming others, abdicating their responsibility, or perhaps appealing to a Rescuer for comfort and validation.
“The Rescuer then gets his or her sense of self-worth by helping the Victim, with the implicit exchange being, ‘I need you to be broken so I can fix you.’ In doing so, the Rescuer may enable unhealthy behavior and prevent the Victim from finding the power to stand up to the Persecutor.”
In stressful situations, we and others may bounce back and forth between the roles: one moment being the Victim (“This feels hopeless”), then lashing out as the persecutor (“It’s all your fault”), before becoming the Rescuer (“Since you can’t handle the situation, I guess I’ll have to fix it.).”
When we operate inside the dreaded drama triangle, we find ourselves at the bottom level of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Because our basic needs for physiological and safety are not being met, we are stuck.
2: This framework applies to teams as well as individuals. The reactive leadership style traps teams in survival mode. “They are unable to cultivate a true sense of safety, trust, love, and belonging,” Danny explains, which “drastically limit[s] the capacity of its members and the organization as a whole to serve its customers well or self-actualize the purpose and significance of their enterprise.”
This culture of reactivity leads to associate disengagement.
3: There is a better way. In his book The Empowerment Dynamic, author David Emerald writes how we can escape the drama triangle. Instead of focusing on “the problem,” we turn our attention to “the desired outcome.”
Changing our focus brings about a true transformation: “The Victim becomes the Creator, taking full responsibility for the situation and what he wants to accomplish,” writes Danny. “The Persecutor becomes the Challenger, and the Rescuer becomes the Coach.”
Operating inside the Empowerment Dynamic brings about a new style of leadership. “The Challenger and the Coach serve as high-performance leaders to bring out the best in the Creator,” notes Danny.
This transformation unlocks tremendous potential inside individuals and the organization. Danny writes: “The energy freely moves all the way up Maslow’s Hierarchy to satisfy the needs for safety, love, and belonging and the sense of significance that comes from manifesting purpose-driven results.”
Reflection: Think back on a recent situation where there was discord or unhealthy conflict. What role or roles did I play?
Action: Ask: “What’s the desired outcome?” the next time a similar situation arises.