The Drama Triangle: How To Overcome Conflict At Work

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Photo: Pixabay/Ryan McGuire

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: How can you overcome drama and negative conflict both at work and at home? Hello everyone, Kevin Kruse here. Welcome to the LEADx Show. It's the smartest way to start your day. Don't forget, you can watch a new free training video every single day at Leadx.org.

Today on the show, I talk to a psychologist about how we can turn conflict into something positive, we talk about the drama triangle, the problem with being a rescuer and the magic that happens when you lead with both compassion and a focus on accountability. It reminds me if one of my favorite pieces of leadership advice from former Campbell Soup CEO, Doug Conant, he always says be tough on standards and tenderhearted on people.

Our challenge of the day, disclose your motives. whether you're assigning a task at work or asking your spouse a question, try to first share why you are asking for what you're asking. Our quote of the day, 20 years from now, you'll be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowline, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover, and that's by Mark Twain.

Our guest today is a former practicing psychologist and the cofounder and CEO of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. His new book is Conflict Without Casualties, A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability. Our guest is Dr. Nate Regier. Nate, welcome to the show.

Dr. Nate Regier: Thank you. It's great to be here, Kevin.

Kruse: Now, we're going to talk about your new book in just a second, but I have a habit or a tradition even for the LEADx show, all of our guests get the same first question because I think our failure stories, I think they're stepping stones, usually, to greater things, and I think there's a lot of lessons involved so I'm hoping you can tell me a story of one of your best failures and what did you learn from it.

Regier: I love your perspective. I couldn't agree more. It always seems curious to me when leaders say things like, “Failure isn't an option,” or, “We don't use the word failure around here, we just talk about learning opportunities.” I don't know why we don't talk about failure because the reality is we fail. We make mistakes, we screw up and that doesn't mean we are a failure, or we are a mistake, or we are a screw-up.

I did reflect on one of my most spectacular failures that I actually tell a story about in the book, I call it Cruella Deville. We were pretty early on in our company and I was pretty naïve still as a young entrepreneur, and we were contacted by this large manufacturer of metal connector parts, they were a global distributor, and they wanted us to come do a team-building retreat for their leadership team. We thought it was pretty good, and we did a few interviews over the phone to get to know a few people and we showed up at this retreat center, and when we showed up on site the CEO introduced us to their just-hired head of HR and he said, “We just hired her. She's just going to sit in and she's going to observe, and then she'll take it where you leave off after you're done with the retreat.” Well, we did not sniff a rat at that time, we just thought, “Okay, great. Good to have her here.” And we started our retreat.

It became obvious pretty quickly that she was feeling threatened by our presence and that she wanted to establish herself as being large-and-in-charge of HR, and so she would ask these questions to try to throw us under the bus and corner us, and it just got worse and worse throughout the day.

By the end of the day, we could tell she was in a bad space and really wanted to undermine us. That night we had an evening reception with the team, and a lot of people were telling us they enjoyed the day and really appreciated our work, but the next day she was back at it and by noon it was just a catastrophe. We left there not sure how things were going to go and called back for a debrief. About three days later we drove up to meet with her to do a quick debrief, and it's about a two-hour drive, we walked into her office and she closed the door and proceeded to berate us for about 15 minutes straight, telling us how horrible we were and incompetent and how could we try to undermine her and everything, and then she fired us and commanded us to exit the premises or else she would call security.

I'll tell you that was the longest two-hour drive home ever between one of my co-owners and I, and the whole time we were thinking, all right, what did we learn here? We learned a lot that day about how to assess situations and how to sniff out drama ahead of time before getting ourselves in those pickles.

Kruse: Well, the first thought I had was she couldn't have done that over the phone and save you that whole drive? But, turning it back, even if you didn't have back then the skills around the drama triangle that you have now, what would be some specifics? Should you have met with her ahead of that retreat meeting to just feel her out or find out what her hot buttons were? How could you have played that differently?

Regier: Well, one of the things, we probably could have done our due diligence a little better by finding out the dynamics of that company a little bit better before we walked into it. This was a pattern that we came to find out had happened before. Also, we could've involved Cruella Deville a little bit more so she felt part of the program instead of feeling the need to establish her power. We could've done a better job of that.

Kruse: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In this spirit of lessons learned and advice, I'm curious, what advice would you give to someone who's just making that move from individual contributor to first time manager? What would be a key piece of advice?

Regier: It's great timing for that question, just last week my blog article that I posted was about this, and I have two pieces of advice. First one is beware of the Peter principle. Most companies promote people to leadership because they're great individual contributors, they know stuff, they're great problem solvers, they take initiative, they do their job well, and so my first piece of advice would be beware of the Peter principle and don't become a rescuer.

It's a setup when we promote an individual contributor into leadership without helping them in that new position because rescuers tend to start to feel like, “Hey, I know this job so I need to show everybody else how to do it,” or, “I need to go tell everybody else all the great solutions and knowledge that I gained when I was doing the job.” So instead of investing in people's capability, it's telling everybody else how to do their job and the belief that we start to adapt is “I'm worthwhile and you're only okay if you take my advice and appreciate it.”

In French, the word rescuer actually means savior. Interesting attitude. What happens is rescuers are a product of the Peter principle, we promote these people up here and then they use show-and-tell to be able to do their job instead of encouragement and support. They undermine the dignity and competence of their people by solving problems for them instead of with them. So what happens is they end up squashing innovation and creating a culture of dependence and resentment. So that's my first piece of advice is don't become a rescuer and avoid the Peter principle.

Kruse: Yeah. What I want to underscore is that you're really setting up then for dependence and resentment, people aren't going to like that.

Regier: No, and they usually don't say anything because you've saved them before and so they never know when they might need you to save them again, and so they want to keep that bridge even though they don't like it.

Kruse: Right. You said you have a second piece of advice.

Regier: Well, the second piece of advice is what to do instead then, and my piece of advice would be become resourceful. Develop resourcefulness because resourceful managers, they're able to tune into other people's needs and skills and motivators and passions, and they're able to teach strategies instead of prescribe solutions. Those strategies help people leverage their own capabilities to solve new problems.

We started this interview with talking about failure, resourceful managers embrace failure without judgment and they nurture it towards growth. They're able to detach from their own solutions to support the best solution.

Kruse: This is great. Of course, you dive into these topics in more detail in your new book, which again is Conflict Without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability. Nate, this is obviously a short format program, but give us the big idea of the book.

Regier: Thank you. I'm very excited about this book, and we're getting a ton of great responses. The big idea is this notion of compassionate accountability. Here's the problem, compassion without accountability gets you nowhere. You can't just nicey-nice your way to great performance or to ending an abusive relationship, but the opposite is also true, accountability without compassion gets you alienated. You can't just approach every single situation with a heavy-handed approach, and so the challenge is we have to find a way to mash these two together.

Here's my logic: conflict does not have to cause casualties because if we reframe conflict as simply a gap between what we want and what we're experiencing, then we look at that as a source of energy. It's neither good nor bad. It's more about how we use that energy. So we can struggle against ourselves and others in drama to feel justified and misuse all that energy or we can struggle with others in compassion and create something amazing, because the word compassion comes from the Latin root, which means to co-suffer or to co-struggle, so compassion is about struggling with people instead of struggling against them in drama.

Kruse: This makes a lot of sense. I want you to go deeper in and tell our listeners a little bit about the drama triangle. I actually have been involved in leadership development for some time now, but drama triangle was introduced to me just earlier this year by another guest, and so I've been reading up on it and found it very powerful. But walk us through the drama triangle because your work and your solution is in reaction to that.

Regier: Sure. The drama triangle was originally developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman, a psychiatrist, and he—interesting factoid—he discovered this triangle while watching basketball. He originally discovered the triangle offense, and this is where it comes from. What he noticed is when people get into drama and get sideways with one another, they play one or more of three predictable behavioral roles, they either adopt the role of the persecutor, which says, “Hey, I'm fine, y'all are the ones with the problem, so it's okay to attack and blame and criticize you to get what I want,” or they play the role of the victim, which is just the opposite, which is, “Everyone else is fine, I'm the cause of the problem. I'm not okay and, therefore, it is okay for me to compromise myself to keep the peace and accept all these boundary violations.”

Then there's that third role called the rescuer that I referred to earlier, and the rescuer is the one that makes a living off of fixing everyone else's problems except for their own. They love to come swooping in with all their expertise and give unsolicited advice from an attitude of, “I know what's best for you and I can make you better and you should be appreciative of all my awesome help.” These three roles need each other in a crazy co-dependent way, and they show up in cults, in families, in teams and in entire organizations.

Kruse: If I understand correctly, Nate, the drama triangle, it's not like a personality type and “I'm always a persecutor,” or something, it's situational or can change from day-to-day or the situation that we're in, right?

Regier: That's a great observation. It's yes and no. The drama triangle, it's situational because different roles are triggered by other roles, however, we have correlated this with personality and we've discovered that certain personalities are much more prone to playing certain roles when they get into distress.

We've also developed an assessment, a valid assessment, to detect a person's risk of playing each of those three roles, and I believe it's the only assessment of the drama triangle that has been endorsed by Dr. Cartman, so, yeah, they are connected. Anyone of us could play one or two or even three of those roles on a given day, depending on who we're dealing with, but our personality is highly influential in which one it's going to be.

Kruse: In fact, your research showed that people who do advance into leadership positions tend to play in one of those roles more than the others, right?

Regier: They do, and we've discovered that people who are in middle management and promoted up through the ranks, tend to play the rescuer role the most for the reasons that I explained earlier. People at sea level positions tend to play the persecutor role the most, and then people in a support role play the victim role the most, and so it all just works in this crazy dysfunctional way because everybody believes the myths and plays the game.

Kruse: I'm just fascinated by your work in this area. Your book introduces the compassion cycle, so walk us through what is the compassion cycle?

Regier: We're excited about this because it's so simple and yet so powerful, the solution we've developed is how are we going to mash compassion and accountability together? So we've developed this model called the compassion cycle, and it's like the engine of positive conflict. It involves three interrelated skills, openness, resourcefulness and persistence. Each of them are necessary, but not sufficient to be able to do healthy conflict.

Once we discovered this cycle, we realized that the cycle has laws and rules, like the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics, nobody invented them, we just discovered that this is how things work. If you follow the rules, things go well, and if you try to pretend the rules don't exist, it doesn't go well. So we have developed a formula for compassionate conflict that uses openness, resourcefulness and persistence in a specific way in order to engage conflict that creates.

Kruse: Love it, love it. Last question on this, again, I wish we had longer show format to dive into it more deeply, but when people start to … When they go through your work, they go through your training, where do they tend to get stuck as they try to use this open, resourceful, persistent cycle?

Regier: What we found the most is that openness tends to be where the big glitch is, which is really interesting because a lot of the research coming out now is more and more showing that openness is the core, most important leadership competency. To be able to create a safe, transparent, trusting space for your people is the differentiator of success, whether you're a military general or whether you're a Sunday-school teacher. Openness is critical and yet, openness is the least developed and least valued skill among leaders. They think it's weak to be open, they think they don't want to be vulnerable and so they just have not developed the tolerance and the skill to be able to do openness.

Kruse: Yeah, I understand that. The other thing I really like about your book is at the end of every chapter there's reflection questions, there's activities, your appendix in the back really provides a worksheet to help you prepare for conflict, but can you leave us with one thing we might do today? I'm always challenging our listeners, like let's get a little bit better every single day, try something new every single day. So if we are now reflecting on how we handle conflict or want to get better at that, what's something we might think about or something we might do in the next 24 hours?

Regier: I have it. I have one thing, and I should say thank you for mentioning those resources in the book. We're just getting ready to come out with a leadership kit that blends the book with a variety of self-help resources, but here's one thing, if you're going to do one thing after you listen to this, here it is: disclose your motives. Before you go to resourceful and ask people for things or ask questions of people, let them know the why.

Instead of saying, “Will you prepare the financials from last year for me to take to the board meeting,” say “I'm feeling anxious about defending our budget to the board, will you help me prepare the budget for next meeting?”

Or on a Friday afternoon, I want to go for a walk with my wife and I can get off work early so I text her and say, “What time are you getting off work?” She gets back and says “Why?” What I realized is I asked a innocent question, but I did not disclose my motive. What if I would've said, “Honey, it's a beautiful afternoon, I'd love to go for a walk with you. What time are you getting off work?” Now it's a whole different story. So if people go out and start to let people know the ‘why’ and the motive behind your questions. They can be more helpful and you're presenting an open, transparent place where they can trust you more.

Kruse: So powerful. I love that. I love that challenge of the day. Nate, I'm not just saying this, hopefully the other guests I've had aren't listening to this, most of the authors I have on … I have to read their book in a day to get the background, with yours, not only is it already dogeared, I'm moving this back into my to-read pile so that I can spend more time with it and really anchor the concepts. How can our listeners find out more about you, your work and your new book?

Regier: Well, thanks for those kind words. I appreciate it. My book, you can search for Conflict Without Casualties on Amazon and other booksellers. It's available in a audiobook. By the way, the narrator for it is fabulous. Great, great guy. Also, on our website, you can learn about the book. I publish a weekly blog. About every other week, I write articles on practical applications of these tools in your life. Last week I did a blog on how to interview to prevent hiring rescuers. Also, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn and follow Next Element on Facebook, and there's tons of free resources and opportunities for you to put these concepts into work in your life.

Kruse: Fantastic. We will put all of those links in the show notes, of course. Nate, thanks for coming on the LEADx Show.

Regier: You are welcome. It's a privilege to be with your listeners. Thank you for this opportunity.

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.