Stop the drama triangle.

“Nick, Joe’s been at it again. He’s not giving me the cloning constructs that I need. He’s just criticizing my assay designs and belittling my ideas. Can you talk to him?” Nancy, a frustrated graduate student, desperately reaches out to her P.I. mentor.

Begrudgingly,  Dr. Nick Yanis reprimands his postdoc. “Joe, we’ve had this discussion before. Nancy didn’t need your input. It’s just disruptive and disrespectful.”

As Joe fumingly walks away, he muffles to Nancy. “That’s the last time I’ll ever offer any help to you! We’ll see where your projects lead to!”

This is the classic case of the drama triangle in management. I can’t even tell you the countless times that I’ve witnessed this. Whenever you get people to work together, you’re inevitably going to have conflict. However, the problem isn’t dealing with it, it’s putting yourself in between it. Often we see these conflicts as drama triangles and their roles to play out, rather than challenges that we try to solve together.

DudleyDoRightThe term drama triangle was coined by psychologist Steven Karpman in the early 70s. It is often cited and used in Hollywood script development throughout the entertainment industry. The triangle forms when a hero comes to the aid of a defenseless victim from an evil persecutor. This formula is pervasive in many storytelling formats, and is relatable by most cultures.

This formula can instigate the optimal emotional impact in an audience. We can’t help but to become captivated by the drama. It’s great for generating audience entertainment value on television or in real life.

Unfortunately, when it comes to work, the drama distracts our attention from productive and deliverable outcomes.  We end up in an everlasting loop.

In many passion driven work environments emotions are primed for these types of scenarios. It’s what enables innovators and leaders to drive through the most challenging work. However, those emotions can be innocently misdirected and easily hijacked, which can distract teams from  meeting their objectives and  goals. Most often, it’s a junior investigator, or project manager’s job to help lead his team and guide them through those challenging times.

Therefore, there needs  to be a way that you, as a leader, can resolve these issues without being involved. I often see junior investigators, or managers, try playing one of two different roles:

  1. Hero: They come to the defense of the victim, and then reprimand the offender, further disrupting team dynamics.
  2. Audience: They completely avoid the conflict, and allow the offense to take place, hoping a different hero will come and save the day.

Neither of those options are solutions to the conflict at hand. We first have to remove the psychological concept of the drama triangle, and to not assume roles. If we assume that our duty is to save the day, or to be the victim, or to plot revenge, then an unproductive drama triangle will emerge.

While, these roles are great to increase the entertainment value of your favorite reality TV show, it’s not increasing the output. Therefore, we need to understand that our main objective is to get work done, not to create drama. I offer up a third set of roles that will help to alleviate this triangle. This was developed by David Emerald, author of TED and  a management team developer who helps reclassify the roles of the drama triangle. I rename them to help identify them in the scope of an academic laboratory setting:

  1. The Hero is now a Mentor.
    • Nick can coach Nancy & Joe on how to have productive discussions and to come up with possible solutions.
  2. The Villain is now a Sr. Postdoctoral Fellow.
    • Joe is direct and critical toward nancy, but is attempting to offer alternative solutions that she may not have thought of.
  3. The Victim is now a Graduate Student.
    • Nancy is early in her career, and the anxiety of learning new research techniques are proving to be challenging. She’s looking for help, and to learn.

These new positions are a different way of looking at the same problem, which can lend to creative options rather than reactions.

We can then ask, what can Dr. Nick do to help Nancy and Joe to work together?  Nick can tell Joe that Nancy is trying to learn and his critical tone isn’t helping her. Nick can tell Nancy, that Joe is being critical, but he is trying to help.

  1. Be the supporter and not the enabler. This can take place in the form of supporting the defender, by empowering her to stand up for herself or to better articulate her feelings. You can accomplish this by creating alternatives solutions to get the work done:
    1. Can she ask Joe, why does he speak to her in a specific tone? Encourage others to use their voice and to speak with purpose.
    2. Is Joe insulting her, or is he trying to help her, but just in a difficult tone? Give an alternative perspective of the situation.
    3. Can she find another person to get the resources from? Some personality types just don’t resonate well. If this is a difficult person to work with, encourage alternative working collaborations.
  2. Be the clarifier, and not the enforcer. This can take place by clearly articulating the requests. Facilitate the conversations.
    1. Is Joe unable to get her the constructs? Is there another experimental approach or a better assay that Joe is aware of? Investigate the reasons behind the miscommunications. Ask thorough probing questions.
    2. Is Nancy having difficulty accepting Joe’s direct feedback? If Joe is a rather candid person, does Nancy have trouble with that style of communication? Translate meaning and interpretations to collaborating parties.
    3. Are there others that are involved in the projects? Or are there stressful timelines that people are dealing with? Communicate external emotional stressors. Re-iterate the shared goals to help them understand the team’s invested stress.
  3. Be the coach, not the hero. Most often, people don’t know how to communicate. They struggle to find common ground. This is an opportunity to teach the art of scientific collaboration.
    1. How can you help her to understand how to communicate with different styles? Help others to learn better strategies for managing relationships.
    2. Are there some environmental constraints? Change up the environments by developing new systems or processes. Encourage the team to develop new systems to facilitate collaborations, like a repository or a resource center.
    3. How can you be a better leader? Inspire them by modeling the behavior you’d like them to emulate. As their mentor/boss, they will look to you to lead the way and will learn how you communicate with others.

Most often, people behave as adults and can speak for themselves. Sometime it just requires a mediator to help facilitate the communications.

However, when you take a side, you can send clear signals of judgement. This further exacerbates the drama. When you act without a clear understanding of the situation, you can disrupt an opportunity for individuals to learn HOW to communicate amongst each other.  People build cohesive teams by learning how to communicate amongst one another.  Therefore, it’s best to not get caught up in the drama roles. Teaching is the best role to play when you’re a leader.  So teach and help communicate.

Have you ever been in a drama situation with your lab mates? What lead to the drama? How did you resolve it? Share with us your experiences.

Happy Sciencing,