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  • Writer's pictureSophia Chin

Is Your Office a Game Of Thrones?

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

How to get out of the toxic radiation of drama triangles.

Image: HBO [Inspired the top meme: "come at me bro."]

I see myself as a leader. I could say that I like to lead. But it will be more accurate to say that I like to be followed - a lot.

For too long, my fragile ego has depended on the loyalty of others. I have tried in vain to please bosses, shareholders, employees, clients and business partners; and win them over. I worked hard to meet their incredibly high standards and exceed their expectations. This has plagued me for years. And made my life rather unpleasant. It’s exhausting trying to keep everyone happy.

So I’m giving up.

Instead, I’m falling back in love with leading. With the actual craft. And not the disease of fortune and fame. I’m kicking my lust for power. There, I said it. I’ve got an addiction - I’m powerless against power. But not anymore. I’m changing, turning over a new leaf, and learning to lead for the right reasons again.

The bane of every leader’s existence

Imagine this scenario. Your most valuable client just called. He has a beef with your project team. Missing deadlines. Shoddy work. The only thing that’s consistent about your project team is delivering too little, too late. After hanging up, you call your project manager. You are quite direct and honest with your feedback to him. He isn’t driving the project like he needs to. You also feel that you have to explain the consequences if he doesn’t change: If the client still has problems with the project team, it leaves you no choice but to replace him.

The drama triangle

The drama triangle was created by psychologist Stephen B. Karpman to describe dysfunctional situations at work. Like all good dramas, the drama triangle has three roles: a villain, a hero and a victim.

The villain harms the victim. The victim complains about the villain and asks for help from the hero. The hero rescues the victim from the villain.

What role are you playing?

Taking the scenario above, the project manager is the villain, the client is the victim, and you are the hero. The project manager harms the client. The client complains about the project manager to you, expecting you to come to the rescue.

The stage is now set for drama. Now see what happens.

You call your project manager and tell him to shape up. You have just framed the project manager as the victim, and you have become the villain. Now, the project manager will go to the client to ask for help to get him out of trouble with you, making the client the hero.

It’s like playing musical chairs. You can start anywhere in the drama triangle, it doesn’t matter, and everyone goes around in circles. It keeps everyone locked in the drama triangle. The roles shift so dynamically that we don’t even notice it. Why even play this childish game? Well, because we can’t help ourselves. We're drawn into the drama triangle - like moths to a flame - because we know these scripted roles only too well. In Transformers, we never question why Megatron harms or Optimus Prime rescues. That’s just what heroes and villains do. That’s how the story goes. You don’t need any more information; you know the script and intuitively act out the role.

Now, just for the fun of it, let’s make this more complicated. Let’s say you have no choice but to replace the project manager. You approach the HR manager.

You frame yourself as the victim. You complain to the HR manager (the hero) how the project manager (the villain) is making life difficult for you, and you want to be rescued.

See what happens next. The HR manager puts the project manager on the “pip” - performance improvement plan. The HR manager is now the villain harming the project manager. The project manager may then approach you to help him get out of the pip, making you the hero again. That’s why we find Game of Thrones so fascinating. It’s the drama of our lives in the modern corporate world!

Toxic radiation of drama triangles.

Trapped in the radiation of the drama triangles

This is how we end up in situations where people are frustrated and venting, no one grows, some regress, and we’re all overwhelmed.

This is another typical situation at work. Your employees complain about their problems and ask for your help. Acting as the hero, you swoop in to save the day. Oh, you can’t do it? Move aside. Let me fix this. You pop their problems into your already loaded backpack. You’ve framed your employees as victims. They become reliant on you. They are afraid to act without your permission. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not even try — even when opportunities for change become available. Organisational psychologists call this learned helplessness.

Why, why, why? Why would you do this to yourself? Well, it feels good to be the hero - until the day it becomes too much. Dr. Evil emerges, and marching orders ensue. By until then, we cannot help ourselves; we are like moths to a flame.

I have always imagined myself to be the poster child of enlightened leadership, promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment. I will be the paragon of virtue, exercising godly patience and divine wisdom. But too many times, I have fallen into the Bermuda drama triangle. It feels schizophrenic. One minute, I’m the hero who saves the day. The next minute, I am the military dictator barking orders. One minute, I’m on the charm offensive: Cajole them, encourage them, do whatever it takes to win them over. The next minute, I fly into a great rage, puffed up with a sense of indignation and entitlement.

At the end of the day, I’m tired, prickly, over-sensitive and prone to violent outbursts of anger. My closest pals say I’m “intense”. They are just being nice. What they’re really saying: “She's psycho”. Erratic and volatile. Mercurial. Short-tempered. Generally, not a nice person to hang out with. [He's an "NGB" = Nice Guy, But...]

There’s just no disguising the lack of leadership gravitas. I’m more like a petulant child throwing tantrums when she can’t get what she wants. It’s unbecoming, and I’ve got to brush it out. Detox it out. You simply can’t have it.

When THE BOSS doesn't get what he wants.

Why we lead?

This is the first and only lesson every leader must learn: Real leaders don’t lead for fame, fortune and powerful friends. They do it because they cannot not lead.

When you ask them, “Why do you want to be a CEO?” At first, the answer will be rational: to solve a world problem, to close the gender gap, or simply, to get a return on investment on my MBA. But those are not the real reasons.

The truth is: they simply can’t not do it. They can’t imagine doing anything else. There are a thousand good reasons not to do it, but yet they do. It’s hard to explain this without sounding impulsive or whimsical. It’s not rational.

But by their gifts and under the authority of a higher calling, they are compelled to lead. They are taken over by a force greater than themselves against their rational judgment.

To see a world full of possibilities.

To connect more deeply with people.

To take courageous action.

But most importantly, to empower everyone, including themselves, to fight against being sucked into the maelstrom of the Bermuda drama triangle. The drama triangle is a big race to the bottom to prove who's the biggest victim. Everyone's burnt out. No one wins.

How do we change this? It's ridiculously simple: you just need to recognise that you're stuck in the drama triangle. It can make all the difference in the world, like waking up from a nightmare. You are ejected from the Bermuda drama triangle. It creates space and opens up possibilities. This is available to us in an instant.

Of course, it stings a little to admit we're stuck in the drama triangle. The narcissistic ego does not wish to accept it. As leaders, we are called to work each day to chart the right course, create the right environment for people to do their best work and make corrections when they inevitably fail. The little voice in the head says: You must not be afraid of it. You must accept it, just as you accept the weather.

Taking the handbrake off

It can feel like the edge of despair. But this is also the edge of greatness - to brush out the self-obsessed control freak and connect to the true power within. Leadership can bring up old childish patterns - demanding attention like a little tyrant. Leadership presents a golden opportunity to outgrow our narcissistic streak and become a more fully-formed adult. We begin this process by fully accepting ourselves - diva tantrums and all.

But that’s not all. At a deeper level, this work is about transforming generations of bad behaviours that we have inherited from previous leaders. The drama triangle needs to go, baby. Once you become familiar with the mechanics of the drama triangle, you are going to see it at work everywhere, all the time. We may unconsciously be giving permission to successive leaders to behave the same way. Leadership means, ideally, that you empower people, the future leaders of your organisation, and they in turn will do the same for their people. Over time, this becomes a “thing” in your organisation. People will come to say that you have an amazing culture, and it is your best competitive advantage.

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