Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace by Stopping the Drama

A great television drama can be captivating, addictive and entertaining – humans generally love drama. Most good dramas have a hero, villain and victim and each plays a critical role in the story.

Workplace drama is no different but is far less entertaining and can lead to a lack of psychological safety (expression of oneself without fear) resulting in team dysfunction, aggression, complacency and other negative consequences.

Understanding the roots of drama
The drama triangle was created by Stephen Karpman in 1961 to explain the causes of dysfunctional social interaction. Understanding Stephen’s model and identifying the part we play in drama enables us to proactively choose an objective (factual) versus a subjective (judgmental) communication approach.

There are three roles in the drama triangle and each impact how we communicate and create dependency on other roles. They are:

  1. The Victim: “They are doing it to me again!” This role is helpless, undervalued, manipulative and tends to blame others to feel better about themselves. At the root, they feel insecure and inferior. Common behaviours associated with the Victim are complaining, gossiping, reactivity, finding fault in others and not taking responsibility. The Victim’s ‘poor me’ attitude empowers people to want to rescue and support them. Victims need Persecutors and Rescuers.
  2. The Rescuer: “Have you tried doing this…?” This role thrives on helping others and being the supportive ‘fly in’ hero; at times, unsolicited. Common behaviours associated with the Rescuer are problem-solving, supporting others, providing ideas and going out of their way to find challenges to resolve. The Rescuer feeds off Victims for personal gratification and in essence, creates a dependency on their heroic way of being in order to feel valued. Rescuers need Victims and Persecutors.
  3. The Persecutor: “Can’t you get anything right?” This role likes to feel superior to others and as a result, may make others feel worthless. Common behaviours are bullying, aggression, being demanding, perfectionism and blame. This can leave others fearful, ashamed and powerless. The consequences of the Persecutor are great as they can demoralize employees and make a collaborative and open environment next to impossible. Persecutors need Victims and Rescuers to keep the team together.

How to stop the drama
To get out of the Drama Triangle, we need to understand and recognize personal fears that may be at play and what we are trying to prove in the drama. Each role has a self-serving purpose. For example, a Rescuer may fear not being valued or needed and as a result, goes out of their way to prove their value by being supportive.

David Emerald and Donna Zajonc created the TED (The Empowerment Dynamic/Triangle) which works in contrast to the Drama Triangle. There are still three roles, however, they provide alternate approaches to take when we find ourselves in drama. These approaches allow us to be more objective and proactive in creating psychological safety in our communication. The roles are:

  1. The Creator (From the Victim): In this role, the creator chooses what can be done in their given situation based on what they want. This requires looking at the bigger picture, being objective and focusing on what they can control versus what they can’t.
  2. The Coach (From the Rescuer): In this role, the coach sees others as powerful and capable and encourages others to find answers through asking the right questions, being curious and encouraging.  This requires knowing that others also have the answers and our opinions are not always needed or wanted.
  3. The Challenger (From the Persecutor): In this role one seeks to learn from others through empathy, seeking to understand and at times, challenging the status quo. They put their own beliefs into question, recognize their biases and work with others to find the truth, not what they feel is right.

We all fall into all or parts of the drama triangle at times based on feelings about others, feelings about ourselves or how we see a situation. By recognizing our role in the drama triangle, we are able to escape and choose an empowering approach instead. This leads to a greater chance of psychological safety and productive and empowering communication.

Kwela’s Authentic Communication course helps employees feel psychologically safe to express themselves openly and authentically. Removing any drama puts employees in a position to positively impact teamwork and performance through self confidence, innovation, providing feedback and feeling valued and motivated.

Glen Sollors, Partner