Navigating Workplace Harmony: The Karpman Drama Triangle
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Navigating Workplace Harmony: The Karpman Drama Triangle


When I (Terri) was studying for my coaching diploma in 2021, online in the midst of Covid, I learned about a powerful tool to help myself – and others – to break out of the drama that can come when we feel emotionally hijacked or triggered.  This model applies not only to our professional lives but our personal lives as well.

This model is called The Karpman Drama Triangle.  Have a look at the graphic below to get us started:

This is a simple picture of the dynamic of The Karpman Drama Triangle.

This model was formed and created by psychologist Stephen Karpman; and it outlines the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer that individuals unconsciously adopt in professional settings – and also personal settings!  You may recognise someone you know (or yourself!) in one or more of these roles.

Originating from the field of Transactional Analysis – another blog post for another day -  the Drama Triangle sheds light on the repetitive and destructive patterns that can emerge in workplace and personal interactions.

Fascinatingly enough, this drama is actually rooted in a desire for connection and control.   Individuals may unknowingly slip into the role of one of the following:

  • Victim – feeling oppressed
  • Persecutor – asserting control
  • Rescuers – attempting to alleviate the perceived crisis

These roles often stems from a mix of various issues:

  • Communication breakdowns
  • Unmet needs
  • Lack of assertiveness

The Drama Triangle provides a FALSE emotional refuge for people struggling with workplace challenges. It offers a familiar script that, unfortunately, fuels fires and causes tensions across many relationships.

Some of the damage that can come from ongoing engagement with the Drama Triangle can be as follows:

  • Eroding trust
  • Hindering productivity
  • Strain professional relationships

The victim mentality breeds a culture of blame, the persecutor stance fosters resentment, and the rescuer role stifles personal growth.

Let’s look at a brief case study to see how this works in real life.

John is a diligent mid-level manager who is leading a team of five people.  John loves his job but finds himself entangled in a web of workplace drama, leaving him drained at the close of each day.

John's team mirrors the Drama Triangle vividly. Some team members approach him with frustration, feeling unable to break through to a hard-headed colleague whom we'll call Alex. These team members assume the role of Victims, while others, overwhelmed and fatigued, gravitate towards John.  In the midst of this drama, John inadvertently slides into the Rescuer role, attempting to fix everything for everyone. The outcome? He's on the brink of burnout.

Now, let's look more closely into the dynamics surrounding Alex, the perceived hard-headed team member. In the context of the Drama Triangle, Alex takes on the role of the Persecutor. His approach is aggressive, seemingly unyielding, leaving his colleagues feeling like Victims. But here's the twist—Alex's aggression is not fuelled by a desire to dominate; it's an overcompensation for his deep-seated fear of being walked over.

In essence, Alex, as the Persecutor, is masking a vulnerability. Afraid of being perceived as weak or easily controlled, he adopts what he thinks is an assertive stance to protect himself. However, it simply comes across as aggressive and he drives people away from him and towards the Rescuer – John.  

The Drama Triangle, therefore, becomes a stage for a collective display of insecurities, with John unwittingly caught in the crossfire.

John, in his Rescuer role, unintentionally reinforces Alex's behaviour. By taking on the responsibility of solving everyone's problems, John unknowingly validates Alex's belief that aggression is necessary for survival. The Drama Triangle continues, and everyone involved continues to play their role…no matter how tiring it might be!

What’s the Alternative?

Viktor Frankl, in his book “The Search for Meaning”, gives us a powerful statement:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This is the reality for all human beings.

Can we allow ourselves to NOT be emotionally triggered, or hijacked, and to fall into bad habits that are not serving us well?

The answer to the dilemma of The Karpman Drama Triangle is to flip the script – or in this case – flip the triangle!  The alternative is called The Empowerment Dynamic.

  1. Persecutor turns to Challenger
  2. Rescuer turns to Coach
  3. Victim turns to Creator

Each person is now operating from a calm, rational, and much more measured place of thought, building rapport, and a choice about where the response is coming from.

Let’s go back to the case study.

Breaking free from this cycle requires a fundamental shift in perspective, and this is where The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) steps.

Imagine if John, instead of rescuing, could step into the role of a Coach. In this scenario, John would guide his team towards taking ownership of their conflicts, and in the case of Alex, help him channel his assertiveness into constructive communication rather than aggressive confrontation.

By understanding that Alex's aggression stems from fear, the team can collectively move towards a supportive environment where everyone feels heard and valued. In doing so, the Drama Triangle loses its grip, and a more positive and empowered workplace culture emerges.

Where do we go from here?

In conclusion, as we navigate the realities of workplace dynamics, let's not only recognize our roles within the Drama Triangle but also understand the fears and insecurities that drive these behaviours.

Breaking free from the cycle takes courage and a change of habits.  If we can make the decision to embrace empowerment for ourselves AND others, and if we can lead others with purpose, we can stay out of the drama triangle and into the place of rest.

With coaching leadership and the principles of The Empowerment Dynamic (otherwise known as TED), we can transform our workplaces and our teams into places where people can take ownership of their own work and (in all honesty) their own emotions, as well as collaborate and grow.

Here's to empowered leadership and drama-free teamwork!