Its structure is an architectural marvel. Often used in the design of buildings, the triangle provides strength and stability. The design provides a most effective energy distribution. Yet its robustness goes beyond a physical element. It is a key component of organizational structure and a common problem in organizational development.
This may be confusing because, on one hand, we are saying that the triangle is a stable structure and on the other, we are saying it is the core reason organizations are toxic. Both are true. Organizations have stabilized using triangles since recorded time but the cost is stunted growth and lack of agility.
In the 1950s, Dr. Murray Bowen identified the triangle as a three-person relationships system, a building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems. He argued that a two-person system is unstable because it can only tolerate a little tension before involving a third person. Toxic organizations meet this threshold quickly.
In the 60s, a psychiatrist by the name of Stephen Karpman, continued with this geometric metaphor to illustrate a model of dysfunctional social interactions in the power games that occur across three roles: the Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. He called this phenomenon the Drama Triangle and revealed how it plays out in families, friendship groups, and organizations.
These human triangles form under stress or conflict and maintain their strength and stability through the organization’s members’ perpetual, ineffective, undermining, and potentially destructive behavior. Although the triangle concept is not new, it is more relevant than ever as unprecedented workplace stress triggers their formation at a rapid rate.
Looking from a New Organizational Angle
In workplace groups, these patterns of behaviors are similar although usually described differently. The pervasiveness of Hero cultures, first described by Harvard Business Review in 1997 inspires Rescuers. The rise of entitlement spawns Victims and the prevalence of sociopathic behavior at the executive level models behavior of the Persecutors.
When these behaviors at the corners of the Drama Triangle are not managed, they create a collective disturbance, toxicity that becomes difficult to expel. The root problem In every case is ego disguised as principled and noble goals. Ego-driven members make a case for their righteous cause, which ultimately sabotages an organization’s purpose rather than support it.
We coined the term Righteous Underminers to describe them after realizing that they are embedded in every organization. Their secret powers will be discussed in more detail in future articles.
De-Triangling the Organization
There are three primary angles to address these issues:
- Revealing Potential Derailers. PsybilⓇ is our online assessment platform that informs among other things hiring, promoting, and development. The information reveals behavioral drivers and cognitive attributions that could potentially derail the organization. Such derailers may include proclivity to manipulate, bully, blame, overly depend on others, or choose ego over the team, to name a few.
In the best case, Psybil uncovers these characteristics in candidates before they are hired. In other cases, they expose the underlying drivers of the Righteous Underminers so they can be managed.
- Clarifying Team Roles and Purposes. Implementing a tool like the Role Navigator, which includes the purpose, tasks, and decision-making authority of each role can be used to clarify the behaviors that lead to success. When members complete their own Role Navigators, they are making a commitment to their team. It is this commitment that the leaders use to hold them accountable to put the team first.
- Leadership development with a specific focus on building awareness of destructive triangles and righteous undermining behaviors will predict a more optimally functioning team and organization.
- Reassigning Triangle Roles through Coaching. Inspired by Womeldorff, who created a new triangle in The Empowerment Dynamic (TED), coaches to build an awareness of the triangle and then helps Victims shift into the Creator role; Rescuers into Coaches (or Advisors as aligned with the Psynet Advice Culture); and Persecutors into Challengers.
Becoming involved in a triangle is inevitable. At some point, we find ourselves taking on roles and behaviors that contribute to an unhealthy dynamic. And the greater the stress, the more vulnerable we become. Building awareness of our and others’ participation within this structure is the first step out.
Curious about how to reveal and remediate triangles in your organization? Get in touch with us to learn more.
About the Author: Jody Popple, PhD, is Director of Family Business Services & Women’s Leadership Development at Psynet Group