The concept of the Drama triangle was one of the theories that I learned that I memorized the fastest, because of its applicability in learning how to deal with conflicts in teams. This is a model depicting toxic and harmful relationships, both in our personal and professional lives.

Seriously, it is very common. We will learn to recognize it, avoid it and how to get out of the Drama triangle.

The Drama Triangle, or Karpman Drama Triangle, depicts problematic communication situations when there are conflicts in a game of negative influence. The triangle implies a connection and interaction between three roles: the victim, the villain and the savior. There are other texts that speak of persecutors or heroes for the last two.

Learning about the Drama triangle will help you, and by a lot, in how to deal with conflicts in teams and to prevent tensions between the team from being dealt with in a toxic, unproductive way that generates resentments among the members.

Knowing the Drama triangle to learn how to deal with conflicts in teams:

Karpman’s Drama triangle is a psychological game, a scenario practiced unconsciously and that can be repeated throughout one’s life without us being aware of it. The psychological game is a system of behaviors so imbued and habitual that they seem natural. In a relationship, be it friendship or at work, for example, if one of the actors chooses one of the roles of the Drama triangle, this generates an automatic trigger to initiate the other reactions. It is an almost inevitable chain. People may manipulate and design their roles and those of others.

This psychological game offers us the choice between three roles, which can be uncomfortable, limiting and painful for the relationship itself. Often, the way out of this triangle is simply to end the relationship, not helping us to learn how to deal with conflicts in teams.

The three roles are:

The victim is the role of the person who feels powerless and without responsibility for what is happening. He or she waits for someone to ease their discomfort and improve their situation. When you assume the role of the victim, you expect to instill pity in others. “This isn’t my fault and I need to help”.

The victim is more self-oriented, powerless and depends on others to solve his or her problems and those of society.

The persecutor or the villain makes others suffer in an attempt to channel their fears and pains. When you are in the role of the villain, you impose yourself on others. “I have to tell others how to act because they are doing it wrong.” 

The savior, or hero, is the one who will rescue others (even if they didn’t ask for it). This often happens to the detriment of others. When you assume the role of the savior, you try to dominate and manipulate others by making yourself indispensable. “The others are helpless, I need to help them.”

The Drama triangle was named by Karpman in relation to what Eric Berne, father of transactional analysis, calls the four myths:

  • I have the power to make others happy (savior looking for a victim);
  • Others have the power to make me happy (the victim looking for a savior);
  • I have the power to make others unhappy (the villain looking for a victim);
  • Others have the power to make me unhappy (the victim waiting for a villain).

All three roles in the triangle are painful and a source of conflict. Each of us can play any of the roles depending on the context we’re in and the people interacting with it. It was essential to understand what motivates each role before talking about how to deal with conflicts in teams. Cool?

How does the Drama triangle work in practice?

It doesn’t matter much your role in the company: be an intern, leader or director. You may inadvertently assume any of these roles. It’s all about how you are perceiving yourself in that moment.

Just to give a quick example: I already played the role of a hero when an intern of mine came to tell me about how rude a person had been. Then I went to that person and asked “why were you so rude to him?” I also played the victim when I complained about one of them to my boss, as if it was a reason why my results were not that good. Then my boss, assuming the position of savior, goes to that person to ask the reason for that. Did you notice? The Drama triangle happens in many ways.

We constantly see this triangle in couples, friendships and work relationships. This structure is also present in fairy tales and film stories very clearly: the villain is clearly a villain and the good guy is clearly shown as a good guy. 

Except that it may even be that the person complaining did not even consciously want you to save them, they were just venting. But we, from the top of our presumptuous altruism, will try to solve it. This can decrease your chances of understanding how to deal with conflicts in teams.

The roles are not always so clear. And when people change roles, problems start to get even deeper. The savior can become the victim, the villain the savior and the victim the villain. That’s where the relationship gets harder to be saved.

How we end up falling into our roles:

Here is what happens: the triangle only “works” because everyone gets some satisfaction out of their roles, mainly because there is some kind of momentary gain from it. Seriously, even for the villain.

For example, the victim’s role draws attention from others, while the villain has the feeling of power over people, while the saviors create a positive image about themselves. The villains rarely see themselves as villains, obviously. Sometimes they can perceive as if they are the ones trying to do the right thing, but the victim doesn’t cooperate. So, it’s very, very common to hear from the villain “I’m trying to make things work here” or “I’m very honest and I tell it like it is”. 

Essentially, the triangle is established when one person comments to another about a third person. You can assume the role of victim when, even though you accidentally complain or make a snide remark about one person to another. The role of the savior, on the other hand, happens when the savior confronts the villain about their attitude. The villain’s role is only created when there is a victim and a savior trying to claim for justice.

There is no victim without a savior and without a villain; there is no savior without a victim; and, clearly, there is no villain without a victim. For a role to exist, the other two have to emerge. This makes it easier to learn how to break this cycle – or how to prevent it from being created in the first place.

6 ways to avoid getting into the Drama triangle:

Better safe than sorry, right? Therefore, I will comment here on some ways for you to learn how to deal with conflicts in teams and avoid even falling into the Drama triangle. Remember the vital tip: it is only created when the three roles exist and they are created at the same time. 

The first tip is to talk only about the problem, keeping as close to the facts as possible, without attacking directly or making judgments about the actions of others. Also, avoid the use of generalizations like “always, never, or every time”.

It is very common to start the process of creating this psychological game when we make judgments about the other’s attitudes, automatically labeling it as wrong, saying that they always do this, that they never respect people or that they’re always interrupting. 

It is better to say “I was interrupted in the middle of my speech and I fear that my authority has been undermined in front of others”, instead of “he always interrupts people and doesn’t let them speak”.

Therefore, the second tip is not to talk about our emotions as if they represent the absolute truth. Your feeling is completely valid at all times and I strongly encourage people to express themselves, but it is important that you also understand that you can react emotionally because you misinterpreted a case.

Admit that there is a possibility that we are wrong.

For example, in the previous case, assume the person (the victim) was in a presentation and they were interrupted by the alleged villain. Here, you have complete freedom to comment with another person about what happened, it is part of human nature.

Only instead of saying that person took away your authority and you were frustrated by it, you can point out how afraid you are of having lost authority to your colleagues. And you think that cut in your speech represents the person’s disdain in what you have to say.

That is, here in your speech, you admit that what caused your problem is your interpretation of what happened, and not that the person who interrupted you is inherently bad. Of course, still, the best solution would be for you to go directly to the person.

So the third tip would be to acknowledge your mistakes. As I mentioned, you can have your opinions and feelings, I am not here to go against it, but it’s often not our job to impose or fight to make others realize how wrong they are.

Even more, you in the position of leader may have to opt out of this instinct at various times in order to effectively learn how to deal with conflicts in teams. I don’t want to tell you to stop expressing your feelings, but rather to reflect on the best time for that to happen.

How to deal with conflicts in teams by being more humble.

The fact happened, someone was guilty, someone was held responsible. I understand the need to “tell the facts” as it happened. Just be careful because, when doing this, people often read as if it were an attempt to completely avoid taking responsibility.

In general, my fourth tip is to avoid wanting to make it clear how the other person is guilty. Usually this is done to turn people against the accused person and for making him or her feel bad.

An alternative is for you to express your dissatisfaction without sounding hostile towards others. You can express how you perceive that the situation played out, how you feel that it has affected you and will affect you and what you think would have been a better way.

This way, it becomes more “evident” that your problem was with the situation, not with the person. Sure, it was the person who did it, but at least it doesn’t sound like a right attack. Cool?

Confront people directly.

I even mentioned in a past lesson that we should not be afraid to raise tensions. Yeah. In order not to create these Drama triangles, the fifth tip would be to head directly to the people against whom you are harboring some negative feelings. This prevents us from entering a vicious cycle of creating an increasingly negative perception of them.

Don’t theorize or create stories about other people. It will be even worse if you comment to others about what you think happened. This is the first step towards creating these psychological games.

Remember: there will be no Drama triangle if only two people are involved.

Finally, as a sixth tip: show empathy. It will be important that you demonstrate that you care to learn how to deal with conflicts in teams. One thing I always say is that it doesn’t really matter if you feel empathy. You have to show it. Cool?

This doesn’t mean that conflicts will be absent from our relationships, but that they will not become psychological games. They will be seen as opportunities to learn more about each other and to build an authentic and respectful relationship.

The use of empathy for me is a weapon of positive manipulation, because you end up driving the relationship towards a more fruitful path in the short, medium and long terms.

How to get out of the Drama triangle with your team.

The first thing you should do is to try to identify how the roles have played out and who people are. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that I’m not here giving advice as a psychologist or therapist. I believe that if you are really in a very deep conflict process, you will definitely want to seek help. But here are some simple tips.

The best solution is to give up on your role and break the cycle. Without the hero, the persecutor or the victim, there is no Drama triangle. All these people are required. These roles feed on the existence of the other.

If you are in the position of victim, take agency of your life and confront the person you believe to be your persecutor.

If you found yourself in the role of a hero, remember the difference between helping and saving. Did the person ask you for help? Is it a shared effort? Is the help infinite or is there a limit to how deep you are involved?

If you are the villain of the narrative, try to communicate your side of the situation directly with the victim, without expressing aggression or authority, for example asking how it would be the best way for you to talk and deal with the matter.

The Drama triangle can be a common situation.

All of these alternatives given seek to reconcile the needs of each one and generate a win-win perspective for all sides, in which people recognize and have their needs met. You will need to communicate with creativity and authenticity.

Being able to speak to a caring third person helps you to find clarity within yourself; the point here is whether you don’t expect them to act on your behalf or to play favorites. This is the principle of virtually all Drama triangles and how to deal with conflicts in teams. Likewise, if you see that someone is trying to hastily defend you, you can step in and say that if you think you need help, you will ask.

As a leader, your role will likely involve many Drama triangles. And that’s okay, it doesn’t mean that your team is dysfunctional because of that alone. The maturity of the team comes when you all realize that this is happening and organize yourselves to solve it. Your role as a manager in the beginning will be to dictate the best way to make this happen. As we say in my hometown, Better than that, just twice that.

To recap what we saw in this lesson:

We understand a little better about what the Drama triangle is: a model of a psychological game that happens in teams, in which three or more people assume these roles:

The Victim, who is the affected person and who is being wronged.

The Villain, the one who persecutes and who causes the victim’s suffering.

The Hero, who will intervene on behalf of the victim to save him or her from the villain.

The biggest problem in the Drama triangle happens when people stop communicating, then the problem affecting more and more people, preventing those who are actually involved in it from communicating with each other. This further worsens the team’s Storming stage.

The best way to prevent the Drama triangle from creating or developing further is by confronting the two people supposedly in the roles of the villain and the victim. Only they can solve the case.

In the next and final lesson of our Effective Leadership course, we’ll cover what are the skills of a leader, so you’ll have a greater sense of what you should focus on. In the lesson, there will be a self-assessment tool, so you can check how you score in each skill.

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Always look both ways. See you in the future.