As a team coach, I often get brought into situations with a lot of drama and dysfunction. Sometimes drama is too ingrained and systemized to resolve and the team needs to be disbanded and rebuilt.

In many cases, however, we can turn the ship around by recognizing patterns and the roles people are stuck in. The most common pattern I see is the Victim-Villain-Hero triangle.

In the late 1970s, psychologist Stephen Karpman identified this common Victim-Villain-Hero pattern in many dysfunctional families and relationships. These roles caused the members involved to get stuck in a downward spiral. As it turns out, we can apply this same analysis to professional team situations.

Team members might switch roles at various times, but these three roles are key to the pattern. The resulting drama triangle between these roles causes the individuals to stay stuck.

The Victim

Feels powerless and feels that everything is happening to them. They act stuck and unable to make decisions or have control over the situation. Generally they are unhappy and ashamed of the situation they are in.

The Villain

Feels they are logically correct and morally justified in their actions. They are generally blaming, critical, and demanding in their behavior. They are generally focused on doing what they feel is right and fair to the larger group or community.

The Hero

Feels the need to rescue the victim from the villain. They will often act in a caring, supportive, and self-sacrificing manner to support the victim. However, the hero is often not addressing their own obstacles or bigger issues and instead diving in to save the victim so they, the hero, can avoid harder conversations and/or avoid addressing the villain.

When I start working with dysfunctional teams, I often see this drama triangle playing out. In complex situations, and workplaces there are often multiple triangles between multiple people and situations where a person can be a victim in one triangle and a villain in another.

The first step in changing the situation is making the team aware of the pattern they are in. I give them feedback on their behavior based on specific interactions, and I help them see how they are playing out a certain role. Sometimes, just this awareness is enough to change the dynamic.

Once we expose the pattern, I can start coaching them on how to react to these situations differently. For each role there is a different, and more empowering approach they can take to improve the situation.

The Victim can help solve the problem. 

When someone feels themselves slip into victim mode, I suggest they shift to problem solving mode. Rather than wallow in their situation, they should brainstorm options. This might include resources they have and people who can help. I also suggest they shift from seeing the other person as the villain to instead seeing them as someone trying hard to live up to a high standard.

The Villain can focus on clear results.

When someone sees themselves becoming the villain, I encourage them to focus on the results they want to achieve and shift the blame and criticism. They should become a champion of higher expectations and desire and assert what they want rather than attacking the other person. I want them to ask for the other person's help and commitment to reach their shared goal. A good champion will make the other person part of the solution.

The Hero can clarify their goals and expectations.

Being a hero can feel great. You get to put on your cape and pull the victim to safety. However, this is a not a sustainable approach. Instead, I encourage the hero to think more like a coach and to help the victim generate options he or she can implement themselves. I also encourage the hero to work with the villain to help them clarify their goals and expectations.

While not all drama is the result of the victim-villain-hero triangle, and not all triangles can be successfully turned around, knowing the patterns and trying these approaches can change the dynamic when you see a team in trouble. More importantly, being aware of the tendency can help you realize when you're stuck in one yourself.