We don’t always understand why we react to some people, nor they to us. Or why otherwise talented employees and supervisors get tangled in interpersonal messes that create toxic work environments. Over the years, when I’ve helped clients fix workplace conflicts, I’ve discovered some of the most challenging conflicts stem from drama triangle collisions. Like the Bermuda Triangle, that North Atlantic Ocean region where ships mysteriously vanish, the drama triangle lurks beneath the surface of many messy person-to-person interactions.

The drama triangle represents a three-way match of negative energy. If you’ve not heard of matching energy, consider what happens when you meet a coworker who talks about everything that’s going wrong. Your energy vampire coworker drains your energy until you feel negative, matching her energy. In this case, your energy matches identically. As another example, consider that many employees rebel when working under an overly controlling supervisor. Rebellion is a “reverse match” to control. This also explains why controlling parents often raise rebellious kids.     

The drama triangle contains three negative energies: abuser, victim, and over-amped rescuer. Abusers threaten, belittle, intimidate, and self-righteously insult others. Those with a default victim orientation take this abuse to heart and remain enmeshed in never-ending conflicts with the abuser. At other times, an employee with a victim orientation sees abuse where it doesn’t exist, reacting to coworker or supervisor suggestions as unfair attacks. Victims and abusers lure rescuers into action. While rescuers have good intent, manipulative fake victims often take advantage of them.

As soon as someone in a workplace displays strong abuser or victim energy, it pulls others into the drama. Here’s a common example. An easy-going, overly accommodating supervisor hires an employee whose left multiple prior jobs because of “unfair” supervisors. This doesn’t show up in the hiring interview because the supervisor sees the best in everyone.

The supervisor and employee work together well for weeks or even months, with the supervisor allowing sloppy work habits and regularly praising the employee to motivate her. When the supervisor realizes the employee underperforms despite his motivational attempts, he asks the employee to make changes. The employee reacts as if she’s being picked on.

When the employee continues to overreact to the supervisor’s explanation for why she needs to improve, the supervisor tries to reassure the employee. The employee’s reaction pushes the supervisor out of a supervisory role into rescuer behavior, and the improvement-oriented information falls by the wayside.

The employee, however, isn’t finished. She again feels she’s working for a difficult supervisor and tells her coworkers how “mean” her supervisor has been. Victim employees can convince coworkers with rescuing tendencies that otherwise decent supervisors have been unfair.  

Drama triangle roles originate in childhood and remain driving influences within some individuals as they become adults and employees. Those who grew up in a dysfunctional family in which a parent gave a masterclass in swaggering and angry yelling, watched and learned they too could get their way through aggression and belligerence.

Others from similar families grew into easily intimidated individuals who respond fearfully to conflict. Some learned to blame and finger-point rather than accept responsibility, because if they admitted to mistakes, they paid the price.

Still others longed to protect a parent or sibling from the angry parent and now instinctively move to protect others.

While the drama triangle operates like quicksand in the workplace, miring even uninvolved bystander employees into drama, there is an antidote.

A third party, whether a senior or an HR officer, needs to assess what’s factually going on beneath the drama. What exactly did the supervisor ask for? How has the employee been performing? Because few secrets exist in organizations, a third party with an ear to the ground can easily learn what the employee has been saying about the supervisor.

Similarly, if an organization’s leaders realize a toxic environment exists in a department or entire organization and survey employees, they can learn what’s creating the environment. Often, it’s one or more abusive managers or employees that have been allow free rein to belittle and mistreat others. Unlike what happens within the Bermuda Triangle, the facts surface.

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2 thoughts on “Workplace Quicksand: Don’t Step Into It

  1. This is powerful stuff! To me, this is the core:
    The drama triangle contains three negative energies: abuser, victim, and over-amped rescuer. Abusers threaten, belittle, intimidate, and self-righteously insult others. … At other times, an employee with a victim orientation sees abuse where it doesn’t exist, … Victims and abusers lure rescuers into action. While rescuers have good intent, manipulative fake victims often take advantage of them.

    It’s complicated, and it looks like there are one of more feedback loops that keep it going.

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