the drama triangle

The Drama Triangle: A Toxic Work Dynamic, Fuelling Burnout


We’ve all experienced dysfunctional workplace dynamics. You know, the ones that suck the life right out of you. Where everyone gets caught up in unproductive power struggles and blame games. The drama triangle is a psychological model that explains this toxic pattern. It’s a huge driver of employee burnout that savvy organisations must address.

What Is the Drama Triangle?

The term drama triangle was first coined by psychologist Stephen Karpman in 1961. His model outlines three roles people can get stuck in during dysfunctional conflicts:

  • Victim
  • Persecutor
  • Rescuer

It goes something like this…

The Victim starts by portraying themselves as oppressed or helpless in some way. The Persecutor then blames, criticises or undermines the Victim. Finally, the Rescuer steps in to “save” the Victim by enabling their victimhood.

These roles can rapidly shift between coworkers. However, the disempowering dynamic remains, draining everyone’s energy and productivity.

A classic drama triangle situation might look like this.

Janet plays the Victim (“I can never get projects done on time”). Mika is the Persecutor (“That’s because you’re so disorganised!”). And then Sam the Rescuer swoops in (“Here Janet, let me take that off your plate.”)

See how draining that feels?

The Draining Toll on Teams

Neha Sangwan, MD is a burnout and communication expert. She is the author of Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work. Dr Sangwan believes that:

The Drama Triangle is a destructive dynamic that undermines teams. It can result in an enormous, unquantified financial cost. This is due to suboptimal performance and lack of employee engagement.”

The drama triangle breeds a dysfunctional culture. It destroys trust and collaboration, driving stress for all involved. It’s no wonder so many report feeling burned out.

Those caught in the Victim mentality become apathetic and detached. Rescuers exhaust themselves by overworking. And Persecutors create a culture of fear, stress and disengagement. It’s the perfect storm for burnout.

Disrupting the Toxic Cycle

Here’s the good news… By recognising these patterns, we can disrupt them. Build your self-awareness to catch yourself falling into a disempowering role. Then make the conscious choice to opt out.

How? Get objective and focus on personal accountability rather than blaming. Set healthy boundaries. Have honest, disarming conversations.

We can help your people build skills such as:

  • conflict management
  • healthy leadership
  • emotional intelligence
  • ‘clean’ communication

Ultimately, less time wasted on power struggles means more energy for productive collaboration. Plus, employees gain the autonomy and resilience to manage stress more sustainably long-term.

No workplace can avoid disagreements altogether. But progressive companies realise just how insidious the drama triangle dynamic can be. And they’re getting proactive about promoting a more positive, energising culture.

So let’s call out and dismantle this toxic cycle to stem the burnout crisis.

Get in touch to book a virtual cuppa with us and see how we can work together.

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