The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction – the triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. It was conceived by Stephen Karpman, M.D. Karpman defines three roles in the conflict; Persecutor, Rescuer, and the Victim.
- The Victim’s stance is “Poor me!” The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings.
- The Rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn’t go to the rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When he/she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.
- The Persecutor: The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.
To illustrate, let’s use the triangle above. Jim (the victim) has an issue with John (the persecutor). In an attempt to address the problem, Jim goes to Jane (the rescuer) for help. Jane feels an obligation to improve the situation, and subsequently talks to John about the problem. Meanwhile, John didn’t even know that Jim had this concern, and he becomes upset with him. John begins to ruminate over this and begins acting passive aggressively towards Jim.
The motivations for each participant and the reason the situation endures is that each gets their unspoken psychological wishes/needs met in a manner they feel justified, without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole. As such, each participant is acting upon their own selfish needs, rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner
As you can imagine, this situation plays out daily in many situations, including the workplace, and the outcomes are never positive. Roles can quickly evolve; the persecutor, for example, might fall into a victim role if the action taken by the rescuer is upsetting. The new victim then tries to find their own rescuer, resulting in even more people involved. Meanwhile, the original situation was never addressed and is still simmering. As you can see, triangulation creates a vicious cycle that results in a toxic working environment.
To avoid triangulation, follow the path of the green arrow and engage in a conversation with the other person. Even if the two of you cannot resolve the situation, at least everything is on the table for open discussion. You can then find someone together who can serve as an impartial mediator to help navigate the issue.
Next time you have an issue with another individual – whether a coworker, employee, boss, or even family member – pause for a moment before running to someone else. Instead, try taking it up directly with the person. You will be glad you did. When triangulation is avoided you will find a great workplace that is centered on openness, trust, and an assumption of good intent.
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Karpman MD, Stephen (1968). “Fairy tales and script drama analysis”. Transactional Analysis Bulletin. 26 (7): 39–43.