What is the Triangle?
Bright Hub offers excellent articles and tips on dealing with conflict resolution; but here I want to explore how to deal with arguing or clashing teams with some examples using the Karpman Drama Triangle.
The Drama Triangle was first introduced by Steven Karpman and a post by Miriam Orriss on the Coaching Supervising Academy’s website Orriss offers: “The basic concept underpinning the Karpman Drama Triangle is the connection between responsibility and power, and their relationship to boundaries.”
What does this mean? The Triangle is based on exploring the three types of personalities or roles in conflict resolution:
Persecutor – The person holding the most power or an attacker.
Rescuer – The person with the most responsibility, or those who excel at win-win negotiating.
Victim – The person in conflict who is the most vulnerable and often helpless.
In the very easy-to-understand Drama Triangle method, one will learn an important conflict management principle and also learn how to use role-playing and exercises to better help teams deal with problematic situations.
The Triangle with Examples
Karpman felt that with the role each team member is using (and they can switch from one role to another), such as the persecutor, rescuer and victim, the patterns will be predictable allowing for project leaders to nip conflict in the bud, so to speak. But how does it work?
Not all conflict is the same. If, as a project leader, you want to utilize the Drama Triangle, and there will be drama, you have to first learn how to recognize each role and determine the appropriate negotiation style to handle the conflict. Let’s look at how to adapt your style during conflict resolution using the Drama Triangle.
Your Total Quality Management team has a bad apple named Gary who is also the team facilitator. Gary is lazy, doesn’t follow the appropriate TQM steps and fights with everyone on the team—he’s playing the persecutor role big time and to manage this conflict, you have to use the “forcing” method.
Gary thinks he has the most power and can do and say what he wants, whenever he wants. He may even try to overstep your authority and direct team members to change processes on the project.
By using the forcing method, you must be very confrontational and firm with Gary because, in the long run, he can’t win so this will be a you win, he loses scenario.
Approach team members with a persecutor attitude quickly. In our example it’s best to first begin in an environment where it’s just you and Gary. Explain to him the actions and words he is displaying are hurting the project—offer some examples why such as, “Gary, by yelling at Steve and Sally all day, the project is not progressing and they are threatening to quit. I can’t have that, Gary, so what can we do to change your attitude?” Next, have the affected team members meet with both you as a mediator and Gary to resolve the conflict—and be forceful where needed.
Persecutors may not like the “forcing” method but in situations when a resource is harming the project, there’s usually a persecutor behind the situation and you need to be swift in handling these situations.
Everyone loves the rescuer—even you! They step in and try not to take sides but instead listen to the conflict and gain the respect of each fighting party. The “compromising” method works best here.
Let’s say Gary, the ever-horrible persecutor, is arguing with your Agile sprint team leader and neither will agree to disagree—in fact they are almost at blows. The compromising method means you need to find a win-win for both sides or, in other words, make them compromise on the solution.
An effective way to intervene here is to meet with both and have them prepare a checklist of their argument or disagreeing points. Listen to both sides and allow them to offer input. As the compromiser, you next must negotiate allowing both sides to gain.
Let’s say Gary thinks the sprint is a bad idea and tells the sprint team leader why—Gary doesn’t believe in sprints and thinks they are a waste of time when the project could be moving on! The ever-Agile sprint team leader, of course, disagrees.
Once both have their listed items of why the sprint won’t work and why it will, use their points to have them come to an agreement. For example, Gary needs to understand the importance of the sprint and the team leader needs to understand why Gary thinks the process is a waste of time.
A possible solution would be to have Gary work with the Agile sprint team leader on the sprint so Gary understands the process—in the future, Gary will be less angry about utilizing sprints because he understands how they work (a win for him) and the team leader will have the opportunity to teach or mentor a team member on the importance of sprints in the Agile Methodology (a win for him).
The Drama Triangle also offers the victim or the role of someone who lives in fear of reprisals, avoids confrontation at all levels and is often the most desired choice of bullies. This person will often let a persecutor overpower him and even when a rescuer steps in, he doesn't want to side with them, either, in fear the persecutor will make his life even more miserable.
Let’s say again, our favorite persecutor Gary likes picking on Sue, the team member assigned to document sharing and communication updates—she’s our victim here. Even Joe, the best rescuer you, have can’t get help her!
The “confronting” method works best here. The confronting style is also a win-win for both sides because you, as the confronter, will explore the problem and come to a decision on how best to resolve this conflict, however, in this scenario; you may have to utilize not just the confronting method but also the forcing method.
Here, you need to take the persecutor aside and be forceful on his manner during all projects. He either needs to change or leave. Because Joe, the rescuer, wants to help you can utilize his skills. Assure Sue that Joe is there to aid her in dealing with Gary and that you have also addressed your concerns with Gary.
It’s important here that you allow Joe to aid Sue as a backup and to strengthen her character and ability to deal with persecutors such as Gary. Agree to meet with both Sue and Joe periodically to see how things are going and reinforce your praise on Sue’s progress and Joe’s assistance.
No Win Conflicts
The final principle of conflict management I can offer here is the no-win situation. If we look at how Gary picks on Sue all the time–and he refuses to change when you confront him–you need to rid your team of non-players like Gary.
If you’re forced to let Gary go, it’s a win-lose for you in a way, especially if you must retrain someone to fill in for Gary. If you already have a great replacement, it can be a win for you. In Gary’s eyes, the end result–his being let go–is a losing situation, but perhaps to lose is a wake-up call for the hardest types to deal with—the persecutors.
References and Resources
Ohlendorf, Amy (Fall 2001) University of Missouri/St. Louis – “Conflict Resolution in Project Management” retrieved at https://www.umsl.edu/~sauterv/analysis/488_f01_papers/Ohlendorf.htm#top.
Orriss, Miriam (2004) Coaching Supervision Academy – “The Karpman Drama Triangle” retrieved at https://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/thought-leadership/the-karpman-drama-triangle/
Helpful Bright Hub Resources: