I’ve always assumed that everyone knows about the Drama Triangle, but a few conversations with people I like and respect lately made me realize that my assumption was incorrect.
Identifying if you are in a Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle is a dynamic that occurs in relationships of all kinds. If we’re not consciously working on stepping off the Triangle, we’re by default in one or more of the three corners. The roles that play out on each corner of the Triangle are the Victim, the Villain, and the Hero. I’ll exaggerate their behaviors to illustrate the three roles.
The Victim is the one who says, “Poor me! I can’t do this. I need help.” The Villain says, “You’re right. You’re a loser. You’ll never amount to anything. Why even try?” And the Hero, as you might guess, rushes in and says, “I can save you! Here, let me do it for you.”
Being on the Drama Triangle can be really obvious- even as obvious as my exaggerations. But usually, it’s more subtle. Most of us tend to have our go-to spot on the Triangle, although, in any dynamic, we’ll rotate throughout all three roles.
I’ll give you a real-life example, with names changed to protect the innocent. I had a client a couple of years ago: one of two partners in a consulting company. Let’s call him Bob, and his partner Karen. Bob’s favorite spot to hang out on the Drama Triangle was in the Hero role, and he’s the instigator of this story. Bob hired us because he’d become frustrated with Karen, whose role was to generate leads and bring in business for the company. She wasn’t bringing in enough business, getting gigs that were significantly smaller than what Bob thought they should be getting.
Inside himself, he started getting resentful, placing her in the Villain role for not keeping her agreements. But outwardly, he acted like a concerned friend, trying to help her problem solve so she could get her mojo back, while subtly being a Hero because he was being directive and not truly coaching her. Karen was having health issues during this time, which surely had something to do with her underperformance. Bob started telling her what she should do to get better. “Shoulding” on someone is a sure sign you’re trying to rescue them, so as far as Karen’s health was concerned, Bob made her the Victim. She actually appreciated that at first; she could see that Bob cared deeply about her well-being.
Then Bob’s frustration level flipped him from Hero to Villain: he laid down an ultimatum that Karen start bringing in business in the next 30 days or she’d be out of the company. Karen landed right into the Victim seat: Bob wasn’t being fair, she was doing everything she could and nothing was working, and he didn’t understand how sick she really was.
In working with us, Bob was able to see how he’d played into the drama by trying to rescue Karen, and by mentally making her the Villain. He started to take personal responsibility for his behavior and attempted to help Karen understand the dynamic. He genuinely stepped out of the Hero role into its healthy counterpart, the Coach.
Unfortunately, Karen wasn’t able to step out of the Triangle. She completely shut down and refused to take responsibility for her part in the drama they’d co-created. After more than three months of them trying to make it work, Bob gave up. Karen had placed herself firmly in the Victim role and wasn’t open to coaching, from Bob or anyone else. She’d always seen him as a mentor (Hero), but now he had become a Villain in her eyes. He made the difficult decision to force her out of the company.
The silver lining of this story is that the painful experience with Karen made Bob much more aware of his tendency to want to rescue people, and he’s been able to either nip it in the bud or avoid it completely in the past two years.
There is an alternative to the Drama Triangle. It’s called the Empowerment Dynamic. First, put forth by David English in his book The Power of TED, the Empowerment Dynamic uses the power of taking personal responsibility for ourselves and holding others accountable for their behavior to turn the Victim into a Creator, the Hero into a Coach, and the Villain into a Challenger. It’s a simple concept, but complex in execution. And it’s worth doing the work. Teams that get it to end up being more productive, more cohesive, and get better results faster.