Karpman Drama Triangle: Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim

Conflict within the workplace is a big issue and can impact on relationships as well as damage  productivity and success for the employer. Staff who are victims of bullying, for example, will not be able to perform at their best and contribute in any meaningful way.

Toxic relationships don’t just involve bullying, however. A whole range of problems can occur both on a small and large scale, depending on the individuals involved. Solving these is going to be difficult unless you understand the dynamics. For managers, there’s often a judgement call to make – whether to intervene or use some other approach.

That’s where the Karpman Drama Triangle can come in useful in understanding the relationship dynamics.

What is the Karpman Drama Triangle?

Originally created as therapeutic tool, the Karpman Drama Triangle has since been used in coaching situations to explore various toxic relationships and what to do about them.

Let’s say Sally is being harassed by Jane and so goes to Mary to complain. Mary talks with Jane who had no idea there was a problem and now feels resentful that she’s been pulled up in front of her boss. In this interaction there are three types of people: The victim, the persecutor and the rescuer. At first sight, it seems quite simple.

The problem is that the roles can change and do so quickly. The persecutor, for instance, might now feel they are the victim because they are being ‘picked on’ by their boss. The boss, while trying to do the right thing, comes across as over protective or interfering and may then become the persecutor. The interaction here is seen as an inverted triangle with the persecutor and rescuer on the right and left and the victim below. The roles are interchangeable depending on the altering relationship dynamics.

The Karpman Drama Triangle in the Workplace

While the triangle applies to many different interactions, one of the areas it’s generally used to illustrate is bullying in the workplace. While things generally change as stated above, they also become complicated. If a persecutor becomes a victim, they might seek out their own rescuer. This often means a new triangle forms, exacerbating the toxic relationship. Things often simmer for a long while and remain unresolved because the protagonists reach an impasse.

The trick is to avoid this state of affairs in the first place. For the victim this may be more powerful because it relieves them of their victim status – they feel empowered rather than dependent on the rescuer to bail them out.

For the persecutor it also works better because they have direct contact with the victim and don’t feel persecuted themselves. They are not pulled up by the manager and made to feel inadequate but work with the original victim to reach a solution.

For managers, a difficult choice has to be made with these kinds of relationships. Getting involved on one side or another may start a toxic interaction that eventually proves worse than the original problem. Not getting involved, on the other hand, may make the victim feel they are on their own and that no one cares.

Understanding the dynamics of the Karpman Drama Triangle will certainly help in understanding how managerial intervention is not always the best option when it comes to workplace disputes. Better education is, of course, key. It ensures those who have a problem feel empowered to do something and approach their persecutor rather than going straight to the boss. It’s not easy and there’s no guarantee that the persecutor will understand or want to do anything that changes their own behaviour.

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