Leadership Behavior: The Power to Shape Culture

no drama

No matter how you define workplace culture there’s no denying that relationship dynamics play a primary role in how we do things and how we get along.

The most influential relationship in the workplace is the boss-employee relationship, and because of this even departmental leaders and middle managers can influence and dramatically shift culture in their own area of control, whether it be in a franchise, a small business or the department of a global company.

With relationships in mind I want to share a model that I introduced in my first book, Stop Workplace Drama. The Karpman Drama Triangle, was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman who used the model for the purpose of explaining dysfunctional family dynamics. It turns out that it is also a great tool to use in the workplace.

Observe all men; thy self most.
~Benjamin Franklin

A Snapshot of the Triangle
On the triangle you see three basic orientations including the victim (V), the persecutor (P) and the rescuer (R). The victim is in the one-down position, with both the Persecutor and the Rescuer in the one-up position. A quick snapshot: The Victim feels helpless, the Rescuer has the answer and the Persecutor tells you whose fault it is.

Karpman Drama Triangle

Concerning leadership effectiveness, this model can be used as a tool to identify patterns within yourself that hinder your leadership effectiveness. Before focusing on changing employee behaviors, the Karpman Drama Triangle challenges you to first look at the role you play in influencing your culture, so that you can clearly see your role and how you can influence others by your own behaviors.

This article explains the various orientations, offers seven ways to identify each orientation, and gives the organizational impact of continuing on the Drama Triangle.

One of the biggest challenges new leaders experience is rescuing. One of the biggest red flags of rescuing includes allowing poor performance by avoiding difficult conversations.

Leaders avoid difficult conversations for many reasons: Either they don’t have the skills or they don’t want to hurt feelings. Perhaps they inherited the problem employee or they let a problem go on too long so they don’t know where to begin. However the paradox is that when the leader rescues an employee from a difficult conversation, they are in effect rescuing themselves from the responsibilities of leadership. There are always consequences of rescuing. Let me share an email from a previous client.

I’m just about at the end of a yearlong process of managing a disruptive employee. This situation ended up with lawyers involved and should reach a settlement today. It has been a long and painful process as this employee had been tolerated for 18 years, occasionally talked to but was considered a “high performer” so was allowed to carry on, hurting patients, families, staff along the way as well as creating chaos in her wake of disruption.

I work in a hospital and the Joint Commission on accreditation for health care came out with strong language in 2009 against disruptive behavior. Addressing a high performer is very difficult. One thing I have found myself saying is that I would never do this again. I would move away, change jobs as it has been very negative and unpleasant. The JC article states just that…many people leave their jobs rather than confront this. The process has taken a toll on me and my team and the employee. I didn’t realize how hard emotionally and mentally it would really be.

How to Recognize Rescuing Behaviors
1. Difficulty saying “no”
2. Resentment toward others
3. Hiding the truth to protect others
4. Control freak
5. Constant need to fix other people’s problems
6. The need to be the hero
7. Doing other people’s “emotional work.”

Organizational Impact of Leaders with a Rescuing Orientation
Create a culture of non-performers
Enable victim mentality
Leadership burnout
Create learned helplessness in employees

It is wisdom to know others;
It is enlightenment to know one’s self.

It would be impossible to play the rescue role if there wasn’t someone with a victim orientation needing help. It’s always easy to identify victim orientation in others. What’s often more difficult is to identify it within ourselves. The unfortunate reality is that very often leaders also exhibit a victim orientation without realizing it, for example blaming employees but not being willing to own part of the problem. The three key indicators include a lack of personal ownership, blaming others, and the lack of initiative because of the inability to see other choices.

How to Identify Victim Behaviors
1. Constant unresolved complaints
2. Resisting solutions and sound advice
3. Sense of being “done wrong” much of the time
4. Blaming the administration, employees, or the system
5. Negativity
6. Excuse-making
7. Either low standards or unrealistic standards

Organizational Impact of Leaders with a Victim Orientation
Create a culture of dis-empowerment
Lowered productivity
Us against Them Mentality
No role model to follow

Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The number one source of stress for employees is a rude boss who uses intimidation tactics to manage. When you dread coming to work you are not going to be productive. The Gallup Organization has a lot of pertinent research about how bad managers affect engagement and work satisfaction.

In a nutshell leaders who persecute create drama. Persecuting behavior comes in various flavors. From the blunt, to the subtle, to the passive-aggressive to the almost undetectable body language. What it has in common is the messages communicated. I used to have a boss years ago when I was a line worker in a factory, who was a big persecutor. Think bully-boss. Even when people had suggestions for making a positive change his response was, “I didn’t ask you to work here. If you don’t like things, find another place to work!”

How to Identify Persecutor Behaviors
1. The need to win every argument
2. Justifying rude behavior
3. Harsh criticism
4. Sarcasm
5. Lack of emotional control
6. Disregard for others
7. Passive-aggressive behaviors

Exiting the Triangle
As long as there are relationships there will be an opportunity for drama. The way to step out of drama is first to become aware of the dynamics that contribute to drama. The second step is to take 100 percent responsibility for the only thing you can take responsibility for: Your own behaviors. As a leader you can use drama as an opportunity to shift a culture where drama reigns supreme to one where trust, responsibility and empowerment rule.

Points to Ponder
1. What orientation do I adopt on the Drama Triangle?
2. What one action can I take to improve my leadership?
3. What skills, resources, or coaching do I need for improving?

Have you seen this model play out in business? If so, please share the experience, what actions were taken, if any, and what was learned. I invite your thoughts and comments. 

Read Marlene’s Book: No-Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace

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Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker, and the author of No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015) and Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011). Marlene’s passion is developing wise leaders and helping people discover, develop, and deliver their gifts to the world. Visit her at marlenechism.com and stopworkplacedrama.com; and connect via Linked In, Facebook, and twitter.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/kenuehara Ken Uehara

    Great guest post. It’s reminded me of a situation that I recognized as a disempowering cycle. In this case, both parties saw themselves as victims, exhibiting many of the behaviors listed by Chism. Interestingly, this victim orientation seemed to justify (at least to themselves) the leaders’ rescuing and persecuting behaviors toward their employees.

    A “point to ponder” I’d add is for all parties to identify, and agree on, who’s playing what role(s). I’d guess that more people would believe they’re the victim than the persecutor.