Years ago I did a deep dive into emotional intelligence, and I continue to explore and learn more even today. There are several ways that my expertise in emotional intelligence helps me as an agile coach. One that I appreciate these days is the ability to see victimhood and blaming and how that plays out in various relationships.
Karpman was a student of Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis. You can explore Eric Berne’s work in his best selling and quite readable 1964 book, Games People Play.
Like all the ‘games’ in Berne’s book, the Karpman Drama Triangle is a pattern of human behavior that plays out around us all the time. In fact, I’d be surprised if you aren’t experiencing the drama triangle in one or more of your current relationships.
Let’s take a look at the drama triangle and then explore its uses as a coaching tool.
What is the Drama Triangle
The drama triangle is a relationship pattern consisting of three roles. The victim is represented at the bottom of the triangle because it is viewed as below the other two roles:
Victim – It all starts with a victim, someone who feels that they are being attacked or persecuted by another. They feel powerless and oppressed and see their situation as hopeless.
The victim is usually easy to spot because they blame others or the world for their situation. They feel no personal responsibility or power to change. They have a “woe is me” attitude that often attracts sympathy. They attract or seek out a rescuer.
Rescuer – Sympathy for the victim will often cause someone else to step into the rescuer role. The rescuer steps in ostensibly to help or save the victim, though in reality their reasons for rescuing are usually more about themselves and less about the victim. They need other people to feel good about themselves. They may get off on feeling superior, enabling others or they may be ignoring their own needs in order to focus on the victim. Because of this, rescuers are rarely interested in victims getting better and wind up as co-dependents or enablers.
Over time, rescuers tend to resent their position and constant helping and begin to feel like victims themselves. They pay little attention to their own needs, over function, get burned out and can become martyrs. They can then shift into persecution mode!
Persecutors – Persecutors are those that attack or oppress the victim, often with a sense of “I’m just trying to help”. They bully, criticize and punish the victim. They come across as rigid and authoritative, not vulnerable and in some cases inhuman.
Persecutors are most frequently individuals but victims can also attract organizations, governments, situations or even “the world” to persecute them.
To complicate things, the roles are rarely openly expressed. There is a lot of mind-reading going on, especially between the victim and the rescuer.
To further complicate things, the roles may change over time with the victims, rescuers and persecutor changing places. Consider the rescuer who over time begins to feel like they are shouldering all the responsibilities and that the victim is not doing anything, giving back, or even appreciating them. This can cause the rescuer to move into the persecutor role and punish the victim.
The Drama Triangle is Everywhere
Once you understand it, you can spot the drama triangle at work everywhere. The most classic example is two parents and a child. The child is frequently the victim with Mom and Dad alternatively playing persecutor and rescuer.
What Fuels the Drama Triangle
The fuel of the drama triangle is the lack of personal responsibility. For the victim that means not taking responsibility for choices and outcomes, and not exercising responsibility to stop blaming and taking ownership. For the rescuer, it means they are not taking responsibility for their own self-care or for the impact they have on the victim. And for the persecutor, it means misuse of what could be positive intention.
And unfortunately, the individuals in the drama triangle are acting unconsciously to get their needs met. They don’t see the bigger picture and are unable to shift toward responsibility.
The Drama Triangle as an Agile Coaching Tool
So by now you are wondering what the drama triangle has to do with agile coaching? First, is to make sure that we stay out of the drama triangle. As coaches, we become a participant in a complex system even if we are just observing it.
In particular, coaches are usually helpers; we like to fix things. It is easy for a coach to spot a victim and a persecutor and join the party as the rescuer. Here I am to save the day!
Except we don’t or can’t actually save the day. We can try, but often our interventions tend to be surface level. Efforts to help victims will fall flat as the victims aren’t interested in taking responsibility and the persecutors aren’t interested in giving up their position of superiority. Then it is easy for the coach to get sucked in and themselves begin persecuting the identified persecutor who becomes a victim!
Second, coaches can leverage the drama triangle to understand system dynamics at work. We can listen for what my fellow coach calls ‘victim stories’. Victim stories in this context means when people are blaming others.
I remember a specific example of this when we facilitated a self-selection exercise for a number of teams years ago. Each team member was able to pick whatever team they wanted to work on.
One of the teams performed poorly after the self-selection exercise and met with all the team members. I remember how surprised I was to learn that this team, which supported some older legacy technology, was comprised of victims. Though they were all given a choice of 8 teams to work on, the individuals on this team felt that they “had to pick this team” because they were the best suited. “Someone had to do it” was what they said. They were victims of the situation and other team members, by their own choice! I was astounded.
Spotting the Victim Role
Anytime someone starts telling you about being oppressed, they are probably operating from the victim role, trying to attract a rescuer.
Employees or team members are probably the most common ones to act as victims. They generally don’t have much personal power in the organization and most decisions are made for them.
Here are some phrases that might signal victim behavior for employees or team members:
- They wouldn’t let us…
- Things have just gotten worse and worse here…
- We were just told we had to do this..
- I don’t know why we are doing this…
- This always happens…(0r, they always do this to us…)
- No one else is taking care of this…
- [and a classic from IT] The business never can tell us what they want and they change their minds all the time
Managers in an agile transformation may also feel victimized. Historically, their incentives and rewards are based on them acting a certain way. Frequently upper management makes the decision to embrace agile and empower individuals which can leave middle managers feeling disenfranchised. There may also be flattening of the organization with agile which results in those in management being ‘demoted’ to individual contributor.
Here are some phrases that might signal victim behavior for managers:
- This was not my decision…I never chose this
- This came down from the top
- My opinion doesn’t seem to matter anymore
Spotting the Rescuer Role
In an agile context, rescuing may be done by Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters. You might also find managers at all levels operating in the rescuer role, though less frequently. Here are some things you might hear a rescuer say:
- That really sucks that they expect that from you…
- This really sucks but I am just the messenger…
After the resentment builds toward the victims, they may say things like:
- After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get?
- You guys really don’t appreciate me at all
- Do whatever you want
Spotting the Persecutor Role
Given the power balance in most organizations, the most common persecutors are going to be managers. However, Agile coaches and Scrum Masters can also persecute.
Scrum is a great framework but it can also be misused or weaponized [See We Fix Bad Scrum]. I will often hear managers who are not proponents of agile say things like “Agile is great but we need clear metrics on team performance”. I’ve also heard managers attending sprint reviews ask “who on the team did not complete their stories?”.
A Better Interaction Model
There have been some improvements since the introduction of the Karpman Drama Triangle over 40 years ago. One that I like is called The Empowerment Dynamic or TED developed by David Emerald. The Empowerment Dynamic takes the classic Karpman triangle and flips it upside down with a positive expression of each of these roles.
In the TED model, the victim shifts to become the creator. The creator is author of their own life and takes full responsibility for their actions and the outcomes they achieve.
Directed by intention, a Creator is focused on a desired outcome, propelling the person to take.”
The rescuer role shifts to become the coach. The coach is encouraging but doesn’t take on the responsibility of fixing or propping up the rescuer. From the TED site:
The Coach uses compassion and questions to help the Creator develop a vision and action plan. A Coach provides encouragement and support, in place of “rescuing” actions.
The persecutor role shifts to become the challenger. The challenger speaks the truth with the intent of supporting the creator to achieve their best.
Challenger is focused on learning and growth, holding a Creator accountable while encouraging learning, action, and next steps. A Challenger consciously builds others up, as a positive alternative to putting someone down by criticizing, blaming, or controlling.
Action Steps for Agile Coaches
Agile coaches can leverage the drama triangle in the following ways.
#1 – Learn to Spot the Drama Triangle
Based on this short tutorial, you should be able to spot drama at work. Listen for victim stories when you interact with your teams, Scrum Masters and other stakeholders.
If you are having trouble spotting the drama triangle at work, stop right now and watch this short video. You can also build your muscles in this area by watching reality TV. Reality TV fuels and lives off drama. Drama is the basis for every reality show and without it, the shows would not exist. Look for the victim, persecutor and rescuer any TV show.
#2 – Stay Out of the Drama Triangle
Coaches need to be extremely careful to avoid overstepping their role. It is very easy for a coach to become a rescuer coming to the aid of the agile team who is the victim of the product owner, management or “the business”.
Coaches may also be tempted to rescue the entire technology organization who is the victim of “the business”. And when coaches don’t get the results they want, it will be easy to shift to complaining (can you believe what management is asking me to do?) as they become victims, or even persecutors.
#3 – Teach Others to See the Drama Triangle
Coaches can leverage others by teaching them to see the drama triangle at work. I try to do this with new Scrum Masters who have a tendency to see the agile teams as victims of the system. And then get resentful of those same teams when they fail to take action or self-organize.
#4 – Orient Everyone to Take Personal Responsibility for Attitudes, Actions and Outcomes
In all cases, coaches can focus on everyone taking personal responsibility for their own attitudes, actions and outcomes. We get what we intend to get, and if we are not getting what we need, it is up to us as authors of our lives to exercise our personal power to get it. No one should be a victim.
I hope you found this article helpful. You can learn more about the drama triangle and the TED model here:
- Short video on Drama Triangle from Lauren Kress
- Karpman Drama Triangle on Wikipedia
- Discussion on Drama Triangle from Linda Graham
- The Empowerment Dynamic website or David Emerald’s book on TED
You learn more about emotional intelligence in my book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers. While it describes the context as project management, the principles are applicable across all roles.