Getting Off the Drama Triangle

drama triangle

Where is your favorite place to go during times of conflict? According to Stephan Karpman, most of us like to go to one of three corners of what he calls the Drama Triangle: the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer.

The Victim’s stance is “poor me!” You might know a victim at work who is constantly complaining about something - whether their pay, their manager, or the food in the cafeteria. They might say things like “it’s just not fair,” or “there’s nothing I can do.” You might know a victim in your personal life who is continuously getting herself into one toxic relationship after another - needing constant help and console from those around her; or a loved one who seems to actively create toxic and destructive situations for himself, keeping him stuck in victim mentality.

The Rescuer is the favorite section of the triangle in my circles. I work with high performing, high achieving people - and sometimes, in our quest to help others be high performing and high achieving, we go a bit too far, into the land of rescuing. While healthy support looks like empowerment, rescuing can look like enabling those who are stuck in victim mode. Rescuers stance is “let me help you.” Rescuers often feel obligated to expend unhealthy amounts of time and energy to help the victims around them, and guilty if they don’t. In families, this often looks like one family member trying to “save” another family member - whether from destructive behavior, or from debt. In organizations, this might mean working so hard to try to improve your organizational culture that you take on issues that aren’t actually yours to own, ultimately burning out or leaving in a flame of frustration. Oftentimes rescuers take on the role of martyr and focus their energy and attention externally, as a way to avoid looking inward at their own feelings, emotions, and anxieties.

Finally, The Persecutor (aka The Villain) has a mindset that “it’s all your fault.” They are controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior. I find that in especially toxic situations, a person might alternate between the persecutor (blaming others and avoiding ownership and accountability) and the victim (especially if others suggest the possibility of ownership or accountability). In the eyes of the victim, the persecutor can also take the form of events or situations (a company or organization, a health condition, or even the weather).

Oftentimes, a relationship of enabling and codependency arises between a victim and a rescuer who, through their default behaviors, keep each other stuck in this destructive pattern.

Ideally, we are not spending our time in any of these three corners of the triangle and can get off of the triangle altogether. Our opportunity, as we are exploring how to be more skillful in navigating conflict, is to recognize when we might be playing a part in the drama triangle. From there, we can consciously work to get off the triangle and then create something different.

Here are a few ways that we can do that.

  • Notice when we find ourselves on the Drama Triangle. Ask ourselves: what role am I currently playing?

  • Zoom up from our individual corner (victim, persecutor, or rescuer) to observe: what’s happening in this situation overall? What is needed?

  • Look at things from a systems perspective. Outside of the individual people or situations involved, what does the system need? For example, in a family where each member often defaults into certain roles to perpetuate a toxic situation, what is truly needed in the family system? Is it more honest dialogue? Healthier boundaries? More tough love?

  • Notice your patterns. Which corner is your default? And what is the root of your tendency to go there? For example, if you have rescuer tendencies, what might be leading you to that corner? Is it a need to feel validated? A longing to feel appreciated? Or the avoidance of feelings within yourself?

Oftentimes turning the mirror toward ourselves can be uncomfortable, but it’s what allows us to uncover the root of our behaviors so that we can change them and create something different.

Photo Credit: Stephan Valentin

Leadership Starts at the Top

leadership starts at the top

With consistency, across various industries and sizes of organizations, I find that patterns and challenges within our executive leadership teams present as issues elsewhere in the company. For example, a lack of trust among members of the executive leadership team may present as a lack of trust across the organization or what sometimes shows up as “a lack of trust in management.” Difficulty speaking truthfully with other members of the executive leadership team may show up across the management team, as difficulty addressing performance challenges head-on or having tough conversations. Fear or uncertainty among teams of co-founders may present as gossip and drama within the organization- rooted in fear.

I am grateful to work with many leaders who both understand and embrace this. This means that, together, we invest just as much time and energy (or more) at the highest level of the organization as we do in supporting evolving and emerging leaders. This might look like 1:1 executive coaching for top-level leaders within the organization; it might look like group coaching and strategy across teams of co-founders to increase trust and explore how to best serve a growing and scaling organization; it might look like executive intensives where we go offsite together for a day or two and have important, fierce conversations about how the executive team can operate most effectively in service of the organization.

While engagement-related initiatives can be effective if they’re done right, and fun committees can, indeed, be fun, I believe that oftentimes, our engagement and culture and people related opportunities present an opportunity for deep work and reflection at the highest levels of our organizations rather than a committee a survey. As the saying goes, Leadership Starts at the Top.

As leaders, here are some things we might consider.

  • For challenges we face within our organizations: in what way might this challenge be present within our executive leadership team, as well? What could it look like to explore this challenge together?

  • In what ways are we actively focusing on our own growth and development as executives, leaders, and/or co-founders, alongside the work we are doing to help others in our organizations grow and develop?

  • What dedicated, safe spaces exist for us, as leaders, to be vulnerable and talk about the things we can’t talk about anywhere else?

  • What is the greatest opportunity before us as leaders? What would it look like to run toward this opportunity?

  • What is the greatest challenge we are facing as a leadership team? In what ways are we enlisting help or support to tackle this challenge?

If you are curious what it could look like to come together to do this deep work within your own executive leadership or co-founder team, I invite you to reach out so that we can talk more. While too often the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” can feel true, it doesn’t have to.

Lessons I've Been Learning This Year

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This week, I embrace another year of life - a gift I am so grateful for, and something I do not take lightly. What an amazing opportunity we have to live on this earth and continue to create our lives each day.

This week, between eating lemon cremes, lemon macarons, and lemon cupcakes (there’s a trend happening here - it's been my strategy to deal with the April Blizzard we've gotten here in the midwest), I’ve been reflecting on some things I’ve been learning over the course of this past year of life.

Do It Your Way.

This is a lesson I’ve been both teaching, and learning, since I started my business. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, how anyone else is running their business, or what anyone else’s website looks like. What matters is that we are creating in a way that is 100% aligned with who we are and what we believe, in a way that serves the world from a place of our unique genius. If ever I find myself even 2% adrift from this place of pure alignment, I know that it is time to pause, tune in, get quiet, and shift accordingly. And for everyone out there who is building something and has the urge to go look at other people’s websites “for inspiration,” please - I beg you - don’t do it. I promise you, your energy is better spent with your head down and your heart open to your own version of truth and inspiration.

Schedule it First. On the Calendar. Otherwise, It Almost Certainly Won’t Happen.

This goes for time with girlfriends, trips to see family, vacations, yoga classes, date nights, weekend adventures, and all the other things we say we want to do but can’t find time for. We will never find the time. We must create it, and we must create it first.

Go for the Comfortable Couch.

While the mid-century modern apartment sofa looks cool in the living room, nobody (including me) actually wants to sit on it.

When Working with the Right Clients, the Business Model is Easy.

“Work with amazing clients who inspire me” is the majority of my business model, and has been for the last several years. It’s a part of my business model that I never plan to change.

Vibes Matter.

The energy of spaces and places matters. I spent two years searching for a new home yoga studio, visiting almost every studio in my city. I finally found “the one” - based almost 100% on the energy and vibes. A studio that smells like feet, has a crumbling ceiling, or has a waiting area that feels like a sardine can is not a studio that I want to hang out in. Acknowledging the importance of vibes and energy allows me to more easily make decisions about where to spend my time and my money.

Enthusiasm Can Have a Dark Side.

My top Strength in Strengthsfinder is Positivity. All of my other assessments cite “creativity, visioning, possibilities, and enthusiasm” as top traits. All of these things have major gifts - especially as an entrepreneur and someone who likes to create and start things. However, they also have downsides; it can be easy for me to get wrapped up in an idea, a possibility, and the potential for what something “could be” versus the reality of what it really is or how much time it will actually take.

We Often Need to Take Our Foot off the Gas to Realize How Fast We Were Going.

2017 was a year of velocity for me. I didn’t realize the speed at which I was driving until I finally paused and took my foot off the gas in late December. Upon doing so, I realized that it had been a thrilling ride, but that the car would eventually run out of gas if I kept driving at that pace. I needed to take my foot off the gas in order for this realization to occur; I didn’t notice the danger of running out of gas while I’d been driving, full speed, with the windows down and the music turned up high. While driving at full speed is exhilarating, I realized that I also need to build in time to take the car in for a tune-up, refill the tank with gas, and even take the slow scenic road at 25 mph once in a while - ideally, before the last week of the year.

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Frustrated at Work


Since starting my company, I've had the opportunity to spend time with hundreds of teams in various locations throughout the US, through our work together related to leadership, people development, and culture.

In this time, I've observed that there are a few key questions we can ask ourself when we feel frustrated with someone at work to increase our own happiness, while in turn creating ripples of positive impact that improve the overall culture of the organization.

1. Have you shared your feedback directly?

"Whispers" have the power to slowly and painfully poison an organization. Talking about each other, rather than to each other, is quite simply, one of the key differences I've observed between thriving and struggling teams.

When I sit down with a leader from an organization who shares feedback with me about someone on his or her team, I often ask, "have you shared this feedback directly?"

In a thriving organization, the answer is, "oh yes - he's well aware of it, we talk about it often, and he would tell you the same thing."

In a struggling organization, the answer is typically "no," "kind of," or "not really."

If you have an opportunity to give someone constructive feedback, I recommend using my mini-formula of Truth + Heart. This means: telling the truth as you have experienced it, from a place of compassion and kindness. This means being honest and straightforward, with the person's growth and learning in mind.

Helpful phrases to use include, "I've observed," "I've noticed," and "I've experienced."

2. Have you asked for clarity?

Frustration often stems from a lack of clarity, or from making assumptions that simply aren't true. This can be heightened when working with people in different roles, in different offices, or with different styles.

I find that this often stems from something seemingly insignificant, that then snowballs over time. Some examples of ways that we can create more clarity in order to reduce frustrations and create a happier, more productive working environment include asking the following types of questions:

  • What is our "in office" policy? Are we expected to be in the office during working hours? What does this look like/what does this mean? What do we consider working hours? If we have options for flexible work hours or remote work, what does this look like and what can we expect from each other?
  • How do we agree to communicate with each other? What are our preferences for communication? What are our expectations for responsiveness? If some members of the team travel heavily, how can we reach them in a pinch, while acknowledging that they might be on a plane or in client meetings?
  • What are the norms of our office? Do we have a stated open door policy where we expect people to work with their doors open, or do we encourage people to shut their doors to create heads-down focused working time? Do we take phone calls from our cube, or encourage team members to take phone calls in a conference room so that the shared area can remain quiet? Do we welcome pets in the office?
  • What are our roles? How can we create clarity in order to fosters ownership and accountability, while also building a culture that encourages an "all hands on deck" mindset?
  • If we have a flat structure or practice a version of holacracy, at the end of the day, who is responsible for making a decision when we are at a standstill? How do we deal with an underperforming team member when our self-managing team is stuck? And how can we balance self-empowerment with a desire for clarity and leadership?

Creating clarity up front is a way to create more easeful, joyful, and productive interactions down the line.

3. Are you assuming positive intent?

It can be easy to interpret a short email as rude, or a direct comment as offensive. However, what if we assumed positive intent - that perhaps the email was written quickly, or that the direct comment was a way of getting to the point more quickly, and therefore saving everyone on the team some time?

When we experience a negative reaction to someone else's behavior (or perceived behavior), it can be helpful to pause, breathe, and remind ourselves to assume positive intent.

Practicing the above strategies will not only help us to feel happier and more productive at work, but they also have the power to create positive ripples of impact within our organizations, which over time, creates the type of culture that we all want to be part of.

With Love, You are Not a Corporate Hostage

"Hi, I'm Ron. Ah, you know how it is, I'm a corporate hostage, doing the corporate thing... I hope to get out someday...."

"Hi, I'm Rich. I'm a recovering project manager......now I'm a consultant." 

"Hi, I'm Heidi. I'm a corporate refugee......I escaped though, I found myself, and now I'm a coach." 

"Hi, I'm Erin. I'm a recovering corporate executive and now I travel the world delivering keynotes about all that I endured in the corporate world." 

I hear these intro lines all of the time.

And each time I do, I cringe. 

Beyond the plain absurdity of these statements (is your employer really holding you hostage?! Did you really have to escape, as a refugee, from your previous place of employment?) and beyond the fact that they flippantly diminish the act of actually being in recovery from addiction, the refugee crisis happening in this very moment, and real hostage situations happening around the world, these statements perpetuate the type of thinking that keeps us stuck and divided:

Corporate America as the perpetrator, and the corporate escapees, as the victims. 

Corporate America as "other."

"Us" versus "Them."

This "us" versus "them" thinking is the same thinking that has created the current political division of our country. It's the same thinking that has our nation sliding backwards as we face riots and murders related to race. It's the same thinking that overlooks the fact that "Corporate America" is actually made up of 127.34 million human beings, many (I would argue most) of whom are incredibly talented individuals who are creating positive change, committed to doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. It's the type of thinking that prevents us from solving the actual problems that need to be solved.

Using this language also diminishes parts of ourselves. Our corporate experience is part of who we are and is part of our human experience. Shutting down this experience is shutting down a part of who we are. 

I believe that all of these things can exist together. We have an opportunity to shift from either/or, to both/and. We can be both an independent, free-thinking consultant and a former timeline-driven project manager. We can be both a conscious, heart-centered coach and a former corporate executive. We can be both a savvy, creative, and innovative entrepreneur and a former analyst in the corporate world. And we can embrace all of these parts of ourselves and our experiences to return "over there," to Corporate America, to partner with the many organizations that are doing business in a thoughtful, innovative, socially conscious and mission-driven way to create massive positive impact in the world. Perhaps we can also even bring these parts of ourselves to partner with organizations that aren't quite there yet, but that want to be better. 

It can all exist together. And when we start to recognize this, through our perspectives and our language, we start the healing that needs to happen - within ourselves, within Corporate America, and within our world. Healing begins when we can embrace the both/and. Let's start within ourselves.