Are you managing drama in your team effectively?

As I'm writing this I'm feeling very excited as my first book, Cultivate: How neuroscience and well-being support rural leaders to thrive, is nearly off to the printers (scroll down for more information). It's been wonderful to reflect on my thoughts around leadership and I'm really proud of the way it's turned out. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful to reflect on your own leadership and to start some impactful conversations in your teams, organisations, industries and communities about the type of leadership our people are calling for in today's world.

Today I wanted to address the issue of drama in teams and how the unaware, despite their best intentions, can end up escalating conflict instead of finding constructive ways forward. It's a long read but I thought it would be timely as the end of the year approaches and people are under pressure in still needing to navigate uncertainty. Plus we all have our own family dramas that play out in our lives and Christmas can be quite stressful for many because of this.

If you've ever been blindsided at work and have found out later that people have gone behind your back to develop solutions but haven't spoken to you first then you know how devastating that experience can be.

If you've ever had someone come to you with a tale of woe about how someone else is making their life a misery and you leap in to save them and actively involved yourself then you're potentially escalating drama.

If you have a pattern of pointing the finger at others and think, "If only that person would leave this team then my life would be better" and then they do leave and suddenly someone else pops up who you feel the same way towards and now you focus your attention on them, then potentially you could learn some new skills in constructively managing your own drama.

Have you ever thought about the roles that you and others play when drama arises?

There's a very helpful model that can help us look at the roles we play in drama with others. I use it a lot in my team work and coaching and despite it having been around for quite a while, many people are still unaware of it and find it really useful.

It's called the Dreaded Drama Triangle and was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman in the 1960's.

Think about your patterns in drama. Are you a rescuer? Someone comes to you with a problem and you want to help them so much that you step in to save them.

Over 20 years ago, I had just joined a new team. One evening early on in my tenure as we were working late Jenny, a team mate, came to me in tears telling me how another team member, Belinda, was making her life a misery. I had no problems with Belinda and found her to be very nice but Jenny kept coming to me until eventually she said. "I'm going to resign because of her!". She also went to our other two team mates and was saying the same things. "This is dreadful!' I thought. "Poor Jenny, how could Belinda do this to her!". I always like standing up for what is right and the other women and I talked at length about what we should do. Eventually, I took up the lead and organised for us all to meet with our team manager Jim (Belinda wasn't invited) to tell him all about "poor Jenny" and "bad Belinda". I was like a knight on my white charger helping to rescue Jenny the damsel in distress.

What happened? Belinda (who was a temp) was "let go". The team had saved "poor Jenny".

Quote from Cheryl Richardson, author of The Art of Extreme Self-Care

But when you live by the sword you die by the sword and karma came to get me in a big way. My lack of awareness about all this drama stuff and the roles we play didn't enable me to identify that "poor Jenny" was always the Victim. There was always a "bad Belinda" in the team for her. She then turned her attention on someone else who saw what was happening and left the team.

Then it was my turn.

I was told our team was getting together for a strategic planning workshop. During the workshop Mindy, the acting team manager, unleashed a vitriolic tirade saying that she didn’t like me and didn’t want to work with me. Jenny then also contributed exclaiming dramatically that she was going to resign becuase of me (hmmm where had I heard that before?).

Afterwards, on the advice of a mentor, I went to talk to the executive director of our division. He wasn’t at the workshop, but I wanted him to know that I had just become aware there was a problem and I would do all I could to resolve it. His response? ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ he exclaimed incredulously and angrily. ‘All of this work we’re doing with the team, all of that is because of you! Poor Jenny is going to resign because of YOU!"

It was one of the most shattering experiences of my working life. After my conversation with the executive director, it emerged that the external facilitator was there to run a workshop with the team to help them deal with me rather than undertake a strategic planning exercise, as I’d been told. It seemed that plenty of work had gone in behind the scenes for quite a while. Many people outside the team, including the executive director and even Human Resources, were involved. Everyone knew what was going on….except for me. No one had spoken to me.

This may sound a bit unbelievable, but it is true. Not one person had ever come to have a conversation with me, and I honestly had no idea what had been going on until it all blew up into high drama that was very traumatic.

I had become "bad Belinda" and the other players became the knights riding in on their white chargers. And Jenny? "Poor Jenny" was the victim. Again.

It's taken me over 20 years to make peace with what happened and the drama triangle helped me process it. The part I played in Belinda's demise has plagued me and I have only just forgiven myself for what I did but it will continue to haunt me. I also created my own drama triangle over the years and put myself in the victim role and everyone else in the persecutor role and I held a lot of anger. But it was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

It was only recently when I heard of a similar incident happening to someone else in my network that I was fully able to understand some of what had happened in a more constructive way. I was really triggered by the experience of this friend and it brought up all the "poor Jenny" stuff again for me so much so that I was having anxiety attacks and was feeling very angry.

My wise friend Jo Vigliaturo said to me, when I expressed confusion as to why this was all coming up again after so long, "Cynth these things keep coming up because we still have something to learn".

This caused me to reflect with new eyes on what had happened. I realised that none of us knew this stuff about the roles that we can take on in drama. Jenny would not have been aware of her pattern of projecting her problems onto others and feeling disempowered to solve the issue on her own. With my rescuing Jenny from Belinda, I did not know how I had a tendency to take on the rescuer role. But what the rescuer is really saying to the victim when they step in is that "I don't think you can solve this on your own and I need to fix it for you." And when I was labelling everyone else as persecutors for how they treated me, I didn't realise that they would not have done this deliberately, they were trying to protect someone from me who they saw as a Persecutor. So it was all unconscious and it was all a typical pattern that can play out when people are unaware.

So what's the alternative?

David Emerald has created The Empowerment Dynamic where we can shift the roles in the Drama Triangle to more empowering ones that are focused on positive opportunities (whereas the Drama Triangle is focused on problems).

So what happens? Importantly the Rescuer becomes the Coach. So when Jenny came to me with her gripes against Belinda, knowing what I know now, I would have asked her some questions so that she had the tools to undertake deeper reflection about what was really going on and I would have encouraged her to have a conversation with Belinda directly.

The Victim becomes the Creator - they have the power to solve their own problems and don't need anyone else to do it for them or to step in. they are accountable for their own stuff. How much more constructive is that rather than spending your life feeling that you are a passive player with no control over your own life and you need other people to intervene for you.

The Persecutor is seen as providing an opportunity for growth in the team or in the Creator rather than being the scapegoat for all the Victim's problems.

How amazing and powerful is that for the growth and development of everyone involved and how much better is it than being stuck in the Dreaded Drama Triangle!

When I look back now I realise that everyone lost in my old team's experience. Jenny was never called to take responsibility for her own issues and never learnt or grew or became empowered or more confident to solve her own issues - instead, she was stuck. By everyone rescuing Jenny they were reinforcing her belief that she wasn't capable of solving her own problems. By labelling the Persecutor as the sole source of the problem and going around them the Persecutor (me!) never understood what it was in my own behaviour that might have been coming across in a way I wasn't intending. Instead it was covert, behind the back planning (imagine the drama involved in all those conversations that I wasn't privy to) and then blew up into an enormous issue.

It clearly shows how things can escalate when difficult conversations, early on, are avoided. And how being aware of some of these team dynamics and the roles people play can empower us to choose a different, more constructive way than our unconscious patterns.

Looking back now this shattering experience taught me many valuable lessons about teams, dynamics, below the line behaviour, scapegoating cultures, courage, assumptions, resilience and shame. It also ignited my passion for working with people to build self-awareness. I feel so strongly that we need to do the right thing by others in our teams, behave fairly, and build the skills to have difficult, open conversations about behaviours regularly in our workplaces. If we do, then tricky situations are nipped in the bud, things don’t escalate, and people aren’t blindsided.

The cost of getting this wrong is huge and can be life-changing. It cost me my dream job (as I requested to change into a different team), my reputation and my mental health. It impacted my family and friends. I didn't feel safe in that organisation for years afterwards. I became anxious, lost confidence and second guessed myself constantly. And I have no idea how Belinda felt but I'd imagine it would be similar.

So the benefits of paying attention to this as a leader and as a team mate are huge. In fact, it's a responsibility we have to create psychologically safe workplaces for our people.

So how do you go in your team or family with drama? Are you stuck in the Dreaded Drama Triangle or do you have the knowledge, tools and self-awareness to step into the opportunities that the Empowerment Dynamic offers us?

Wow! It's taken me over 20 years to tell that story so I hope that it has been constructive and may assist you the next time you're facing some drama. It might also give you pause to look back on conflicts you've had previously and think about how you would handle them now with this new knowledge. Just remember to treat yourself with compassion!

Let me know if there's anything you might need or if you'd like a chat.

Thanks so much for reading! xxx