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The Karpman Drama Triangle & the Workplace: Definition & Avoidance

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Workplace relationships can be complicated. In this lesson, we'll look at a specific complication in relationships, the Karpman Drama Triangle, and how it can be avoided in the workplace.

Relationships at Work

Dave feels like his boss Carly picks on him, so he talks to his friend Sita, the boss of another department. Sita likes Dave and intervenes for him, telling Carly to be nicer. In turn, Carly feels like Sita and Dave are ganging up on her. She also feels like Sita is saying that Carly can't run her own department well.

Relationships are a key part of work life, but they can be tricky. The relationship triangle involving Dave, Sita, and Carly is a good example of how simple interactions at work can turn into a big mess. When unhealthy relationships form at work, they can reduce productivity and employee morale. After all, if Dave feels like Carly is picking on him, he'll be upset and less likely to be productive. If Carly feels like Dave and Sita are ganging up on her and questioning her authority, she'll be less effective as a leader. Meanwhile, Sita is losing time and emotional energy dealing with the conflict between Carly and Dave. That's time and energy she could be putting into her own department!

To help Dave, Carly, and Sita, let's define Karpman's Drama Triangle and examine how to stop it from happening at work.

The Drama Triangle

One way to think about what's going on between Dave, Carly, and Sita involves something called the Drama Triangle, or the Karpman Triangle. It was named after Stephen Karpman, the psychologist who originally created it. The purpose of the Karpman Triangle is to think about one of the ways that people can take roles in relationships.

Karpman originally designed the triangle to discuss personal relationships. However, it can be used to describe workplace relationships, too. The triangle has three people engaged in relationships with each other. It looks like this:

karpman triangle

The three roles in the Karpman Triangle are victim, persecutor, and rescuer. The victim feels picked on by someone else. Often, the victim has less power than the others in the triangle. For example, while both Sita and Carly are management, Dave is lower on the corporate ladder. He feels like he's the victim of Carly's bullying.

The persecutor is cast in the role of the bad guy. The persecutor is the person who is blamed for picking on the victim. For example, Carly is playing the persecutor when she picks on Dave (or when he thinks she's picking on him).

Finally, the rescuer plays the good guy who intervenes. Just like the name would suggest, this person is trying to rescue the victim from the persecutor. When Sita tells Carly to be nicer to Dave, she's being the rescuer.

Roles in the Karpman Triangle can shift. For example, when Sita talks to Carly, it makes Carly feel like the victim. In that moment, Sita is the persecutor. If Carly seeks someone else out to defend her against Sita, that person will be the new rescuer.

Breaking the Cycle

The Karpman Triangle can cause all sorts of problems. In the workplace, these types of relationship triangles cause resentment and do not solve conflict. Instead, they tend to heighten the problem and make it worse.

So how can Dave, Carly, and Sita break the cycle that they're in? The key to avoiding or breaking out of the Karpman Triangle is for the victim and persecutor to speak directly with each other instead of engaging a rescuer to intervene.

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