The Karpman Drama Triangle: how to escape the office dramas

Is there too much drama in your office? The Karpman Drama Triangle is a simple way to escape the office dramas and get back to work.

The triangle defines 3 roles (Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer) that are the classic roles of almost every office drama.

You can escape the office dramas by refusing to play these roles.

Karpman Drama Triangle model

Introducing the 3 roles in the Karpman Drama Triangle: Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer

You’ll see these roles played out endlessly in the movies: Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer.

It’s the princess locked in the tower, the evil stepmother, and the handsome prince.  Or the City of Gotham, the Joker, and Batman. Or the people of earth, the latest Galactic threat, and the Avengers. Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer.

These roles also play out in the office because they’re fundamental to human nature (which is also why they make such successful movies!).

Beware. Once you start looking, you’ll see drama triangles everywhere!

The role of the Persecutor: “You’re useless, it’s all your fault!

The Persecutor is quick to criticize and blame others. They use their power as a destructive force, as a result this role is sometimes referred to as ‘the villain’. A Persecutor is controlling and authoritarian, and they oppress Victims with bullying and threats (sometime subtle, sometimes less so). They fail to realize that they can use their power for good.

They put other people down, they are self-righteous, set strict limits on behavior, and they are generally angry and unpleasant (when they’re at their worst).

The role of the Victim: “I’m helpless, it’s not my fault!

Victims feel helpless and powerless (it doesn’t mean they are). They set unrealistic expectations and deny they can change anything. They may be passive aggressive.

They have a mentality of “this always happens to me!”. And they believe they can never get ahead in life.

The role of the Rescuer: “I’m good, let me help you

Rescuers like to help other people. They sympathize. They answer the calls of the victim “I’m here. I’m going to help you”. They do this because they believe other people are not capable of helping themselves. As a result, they take responsibility for other peoples’ problems (though their own life may be a mess).

Rescuers want to be seen and validated. They feel guilty if they’re not helping others, though they can exhaust themselves in this role (and swing into the Victim role).

The ‘discount’ in each role

As you can probably see, each role involves a ‘discount’.

  • The Persecutor discounts the feelings of other people.
  • The Victim discounts themselves and their own ability to problem solve or initiate change.
  • The Rescuer discounts the ability of others to think for themselves and act on their own initiative.

As you’ll see below, the best way to break the triangle and get back to work is to take action to address these discounts.

Karpman Drama Triangle examples

As mentioned, there are endless examples of the Karpman Drama Triangle in movies and stories (think: Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and the Woodcutter).

Our home lives provide plenty of Karpman Drama Triangle examples too. A very simple example:

  • Father to son: “Why do you keep failing at math!
  • Son to father: “I guess I’m just useless
  • Mother to son: “Come on, let me help you with it

It’s important to note: if the mother does the homework for their son, she is a Rescuer, perpetuating the drama triangle. Rescuing is very different from enabling. If the mother helps her son to learn the math, this is enabling, not ‘rescuing’.

Workplace Drama Triangle examples

It’s important to understand that the Karpman Drama Triangle illustrates the roles that we play. We can shift from one role to another, even within a conversation.

This video provides great examples of the drama triangle in the workplace, and the shifting roles that we play:

The manager as rescuer, one of the examples in this video, is a classic drama triangle example.

How to avoid the drama triangles and get back to work

You probably have a natural role within the drama triangle. You may naturally be a Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer. Often these roles have been part of our upbringing, part of our psyche, and become our natural ‘starting gate’ for drama in the workplace.

The key is to recognize the role isn’t real – it’s a choice.

If you’re slipping into a Victim role:

  • Ask yourself, what’s one thing that I can do, right now, that will help. Then do it.
  • Use positive language, to encourage a more positive outlook.
  • Practice gratitude exercises.
  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset.

If you’re slipping into a Persecutor role:

Ask yourself:

Then refocus on the task, not the person.

If you’re slipping into a Rescuer role:

  • Reflect on why you need to be a Rescuer.
  • Ask, how can I empower this individual, rather than rescue them?
  • Coach them to find the answers for themselves.

By recognizing these roles and refusing to adopt them, you’ll reduce the games people play (and the games you play!), and get back to the work.

The Karpman Drama Triangle: in summary

The Karpman Drama Triangle defines the 3 classic roles of any drama: Persecutor, Victim, Rescuer.

  • The Role of the Persecutor: “You’re useless, it’s all your fault!
  • The Role of the Victim: “I’m helpless, it’s not my fault!
  • The Role of the Rescuer: “I’m good, let me help you

Recognize that these roles are a choice. Then take the actions I’ve recommended to break the triangle and get back to work, without the drama.