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Henley Leadership Group Blog

The Secret To Mending A Messy Work Relationship

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So, you’re tangled up with another person at work and aren’t quite sure what to do next. This isn’t uncommon! In all relationships, both personal and professional, you’ll occasionally come to a place where you feel stuck and don’t know how to move forward. An outsider’s perspective can help. Allow me to be your coach — someone who can support you with skills, tools and questions that will increase your clarity and move you toward resolution. 

Sometimes people feel awkward, embarrassed, or may even think they’ve failed because they’re stuck or frustrated in a relationship. Taking time to reflect on what’s happened and your part in the breakdown is brave and proactive. 

Let’s consider a framework to help you understand where you might be right now. The Drama Triangle is a model created by Stephen Karpman that defines three roles people take on whenever there’s an upset. And it's one of the most effective leadership tools we use. There are three positions on the Triangle: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. 

  • The persecutor thinks they must win at all costs. They control others through blame, criticism, and domination. 
  • The rescuer intervenes on behalf of the victim, thinking they must protect them from perceived harm. 
  • The victim thinks they are powerless and have no voice and no choice. 

Any time you are upset, you have taken a position on the Triangle. Your job is to name where you are and then do something to get off the Triangle. Where are you on the Triangle? 

Now, to untangle the relationship mess. 

If you have identified that you are making another wrong, blaming, or criticizing (the persecutor), the action you could take is to give up the right to be right

Reflect on what you are being so right about. Do you think there is one right way to lead or participate in a meeting? Do you think there is one right way to communicate? Do you think there is one right way to treat others? 

Now that you’ve reflected, do you notice that, in most cases, your way is the “right” way? In other words, you feel that people need to be more like you. 

What if you could give up just a small bit of your self-righteousness? This would cause a shift in the relationship. The bigger movement might happen if you could apologize to the person you are tangled up with for your own self-righteousness. This gets you off the Triangle. 

If you’ve determined that you are intervening on behalf of a perceived victim — by taking action for them, by shutting down the persecutor, or by siding with the victim — then you are on the Triangle as a rescuer. The antidote to rescuing is to empower the victim to take action for themselves. Support, encourage, or keep your mouth shut, but don’t do it for them! Get yourself out of the middle. 

Finally, if you feel utterly powerless, down, or hopeless, it’s likely you have taken the victim position. The way out of this position is to find and take one act of power. This can be as simple as taking a deep breath and lightening up, or taking a walk around the block and distracting yourself from the upset long enough to gain a larger perspective. Make popcorn or a pot of soup. Talk to a friend.

You could also take out a pen and paper and journal what you are feeling and experiencing as a way of neutralizing the events onto paper. One act of power is all it takes to get you off the Triangle. 

Once you are off the Triangle, the relationship begins to shift. It changes the dance between two people. And it only takes one of you to make this happen.

Shift your focus. Change your actions. Can you look for the good? Can you find the gold in what is unfolding? What are you learning? What do you refuse to learn? 

This is the map of the territory for untangling a mess in a work relationship. Leadership means that you go first. You do the work to make things better. I know you can.

Previously published on Forbes