What does a John Le Carré book, the TV series ‘Friends’ and the movie ‘The Lion King’ have in common? What is the common denominator?They’re all created, using a drama triangle. A drama triangle is a key to create a captivating story, a story that stirs people’s emotions and gets you hooked on the plot. Drama triangles are the reason you binge watch Netflix series. Drama triangles, however, never produce any tangible results. That is why when used skilfully and you continue watching the same series season after season. They hook you.
Every time we go ‘below the line’ with our feeling of being right, we also automatically start a drama triangle.
Exploring what it takes to become a great team leader by avoiding the drama
This is the fourth blog post in my series around leadership skills and how we become great team leaders by focusing on followership .
We are using a simple but powerful model that I call above the line and below the line. You may need to go back to this post in the series in order to get the full explanation. Briefly, above the line, we are constructive, we are positive, we are cooperative, we are open to solutions. Below the line we are closed, defensive and not very cooperative.Obviously, below the line we don’t create a lot of followership.
What most of us don’t realise is that we drop below the line and start a drama triangle much more often that we are aware of.
Here is the video version:
And – as a new service to you my reader here is the sound track in case you prefer that version
The principle of the drama triangle
If you take a course in how to write a screenplay for Hollywood, they will introduce you to the concept of the drama triangle. It is the template that nearly everyone uses in order to create a captivating story. It works like this: In order for us to have a captivating story, we need a victim. Somebody who gets hurt, persecuted cheated, whatever.
And in order to produce a victim, we need a villain. Somebody who does something bad to the victim. And then to save the day, we need a hero who will come to the rescue of our victim.
With these three elements we have the basics of a good story. The series ‘House of Cards’ is a great example. It is easy to identify the three roles of Victim, Villain and Hero. Or is it? Because when the drama triangle is used well, the roles shift. Suddenly the hero is the villain; the victim the hero and then it shifts again, the victim is now the villain etc. It’s very, very powerful. The beauty of the dram triangle is that there is never a solution. It just goes round and round creating endless waves of hot emotions. That is what keeps you glued to the screen episoden after episode, season after season.
When you go below the line you start a new drama
When you let your mindset drop below the line, often triggered by your feeling of being right, you automatically start off a drama triangle because you will pick one of the three roles for yourself.
You will choose to see yourself as the victim: Why does nobody understand me? Or you take the villain role: These people are stupid they need to understand that I am right. Or you may choose to be the hero: I am going to save these people from their ignorance. One role is not better that the other they are all toxic in each their way. But that is only part of the story. When you initiate a drama triangle you trigger the people around you to take one of the other roles. It’s a game or a dance if you like and we all know instinctively how to play this game.
And in our blissful state of autopilot switched to ‘survival’ we just click in and take our role whenever someone invites us to have a game of drama triangle.
You come home from work. And yell at the kids for again leaving their bikes in the driveway. You are the villain, they are the victims. Your wife, the hero, jumps in and defends them. Then she switches gear and ask you why you are late again for dinner and gives you an ear full. You favourite daughter throws her armes around you and declares that it is so lovely to have you home… and so it goes round and round. If nobody stops the game it will just continues every evening until the relationship is totally toxic.
Some team leaders are chronic drama queens
Bad team leaders operating below the line also play this game, endlessly. They persecute a team member for doing something wrong (Villain). They complain to the team that ‘upstairs’ has again put pressure on them to get better results or that this week they will be putting in more hours than anyone else (Victim)*, or they take over a task from a team member to do the task themselves (hero) instead of teaching the team members how to do it. And if the team members are not aware of what is going on they just play along – they know how it goes, it’s a well known game and it repeat itself every day. No results. No improved outcomes, lots of frustration and produce no genuine engagement.
When a team leader operates from the below the line in this way the rest of the team is dragged below the line – and so are the customers they are supposed to service with constructive solutions. The negativity spreads.
(*A favourite victim role with team leaders, is to play ‘look how overworked or busy I am…’. It’s also called ‘poor little me’. It a great game judging by how many people choose to play along.)
How not to get sucked into the drama triangle
There is only one way out of the toxic drama triangle and that is to stop the game. It can be done by asking the magic question from previous blog post.
- how we could find a solution?
- if you could help me learn how to do it right?
- what would you suggest we do about that?
The last one is my favourite. It is a real drama triangle game spoiler. With that question you reclaim the high ground above the line and you invite others to join you and stop the game playing.
How much drama can you spot around you?
As your task for the week I invite you to notice how many drama triangles you can identify happening around you, in your team, at home or just watching your favourite soap series. Notice also how clients play drama triangles with us as well. They attack us, they play victim, they play heroes, they do the same thing. They try to draw us into a drama. And the only way again is to ask the key questions for us to break out of the drama and decline the invitation to be part of the drama triangle dance or game.
Next week I will go a bit deeper into more variants of the drama triangle roles and how easily we get trapped below the line in the toxic patterns of communication – some of them are quite subtle and tricky to spot.