How much power do you own?

So you want to be a leader? Or at least get your voice heard more often in your organisation? Whether you feel powerful or not it is useful to think about how you get power in any given situation.

I find Karpman’s Rescue Drama triangle a useful starting point for looking at power. In this blog I’d like to present my version of the triangle. I will describe how I see it operating in organisations, ways of avoiding the triangle roles, and finally how to own each of these roles within us to avoid them tripping us up.

How the triangle operates

The triangle recognises that in many of our human relationships we perform a dance involving three separate roles. In Karpman’s original 1968 article he described how these roles show up in fairy tales; evidence that they have been part of human conditioning for years. Karpman’s three roles are the Victim, the Persecutor and the Rescuer. In our interactions we tend to switch between the roles, which is why Karpman calls it the Drama triangle. He uses the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin as an example. 

  • The mayor of the town starts out as a Victim of the rats.
  • The Pied Piper rides into town as the Rescuer to destroy the rats.
  • The mayor then turns into a Persecutor by refusing to pay the Pied Piper.
  • The Pied Piper then becomes a Persecutor himself by taking the children away, leaving the mayor as a Victim again.

I prefer to use the terms Villain and Hero rather than Persecutor and Rescuer. Let’s look at how this can work in an organisation, with an example of the sales manager, who micromanages his/her team. S/he is continually chasing them for sales figures. S/he often gets involved in the deals to clinch them. This is typical Hero behaviour; riding in at the last minute and getting all the glory. But this can jeopardise the salesperson’s relationship with the customer. So the salesperson resents the manager’s involvement so they see them as a Villain. They feel like a Victim. The manager on the other hand experiences the “bad attitude” of the salesperson and sees them as the Villain, and themselves as the Victim.

And so it goes on. Because the Villain and the Hero are positions of power, and the Victim is one of powerlessness. The secret is to rebalance the power. Obviously the manager always has a degree of power over the subordinate. But the more the manager uses behaviours that avoid the Villain/Hero the less likely they will be to end up in triangle situations.

Avoiding the Villain

The Villain is an aggressive bully. Fundamentally Villains operate from a position of deep insecurity. Avoiding the Villain means be assertive without being aggressive. This means you need to have clear boundaries about what is and what is not acceptable, and clear expectations. It helps if the organisation has a clear set of value statements or principles about how people should behave that you can then follow.

You will appear less like a Villain if you show support for others at the same time as saying No. And give a solid reason for saying No. But not too many. Otherwise you end up doing what Huthwaite International calls “argument dilution.” Giving too many reasons means that it is easier for other people to find something to challenge.

Avoiding the Hero

The Hero is often desperate to help others as a way of satisfying their own needs, and helping them to feel good about themselves. Coaches and counsellors can easily fall into the trap of being Heroes if they are not careful. In his book Power in the Helping Professions Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig’s illustrates the dangers of coaches/helpers misusing their power in this way.

To avoid the Hero you need to look after and nurture yourself, before you turn to help others. Also, wait to be asked for help, instead of offering it, or even worse, rushing in to take over (unless it’s a matter of life or death). In my research into complaint handling  I discovered that customers were far happier when the adviser offered solutions that the customer had actually asked for, rather than making proposals off their own back. It is the same in sales. Ask the customer to tell you what they actually want in terms of a solution, and then show them how you can meet their need. It’s a behaviour that Huthwaite International call a Benefit statement. I also call it a Match statement, because it is matching what you are offering to what the other person has said that they want.

Another way of avoiding the Hero trap is to encourage the other person to think something through for themselves. This does not mean that you can’t offer insights, but it does mean not telling the other person what to do.

Avoiding the Victim

Avoiding the Victim means you accept responsibility and are prepared to step up to the plate. It means knowing yourself and valuing yourself, even when somebody else is trying to bully you or take over from you.

Owning these roles

To own your own power and be an effective leader I do believe that you shouldn’t just avoid falling into the triangle. You need to go a step further and own each of the Victim, Villain and Hero roles within yourself.

Owning the Villain

Owning the Villain means you need to be prepared to make difficult decisions and say No when required. This is easier if you have established boundaries as described above. You need to be clear and consistent in your actions and in the way that you treat people.

Owning the Hero

Owning the Hero means you are inspirational. It means you have a vision, or clear goals for yourself and you inspire others by the way you go about achieving them. This is easier if you focus on yourself and look after yourself as described above. When you own the Hero you walk the walk and talk the talk in a way that makes others want to follow you. Heroes follow their own path on a journey to better understanding themselves. To better understand the Hero read Joseph Campbell’s work.

Owning the Victim

Owning the Victim is probably the most important for a leader. It’s means you recognise your own weaknesses and vulnerability. None of us are superpeople. We are all flawed works in progress, even those of us who have a high Be Perfect driver. When you own the Victim you can allow yourself to make mistakes or feel vulnerable, and still value yourself. Look around the world at leaders who seem to have inflated Egos and what you see are people who are desperately hiding their deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability. They want to continually play the Hero, or even the Villain, because that’s how they get their Ego stroked. The one role they refuse to acknowledge in themselves is the Victim, because to them that seems to be a position of weakness. Having said that, hiding the Victim can be a strategy for success.

The paradox is that owning your own faults and weaknesses is probably the most powerful thing you can do. Because nobody else can then point them out to you.