Building high trust cultures is a key concern for most organisations in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world.  Trust has shot up the CEO agenda in the last 12 months, as reported by the PwC CEO Survey; in the recent 2017 poll 58% of CEOs believe a lack of trust will damage their business.

58% of CEOs believe a lack of trust will damage their business

The impact of a high trust environment has been widely demonstrated on a range of business drivers from staff motivation, discretionary effort, innovation, engagement and retention. The 2016 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list measure a staff turnover rate half that of industry peers.

We are also familiar with what happens when a culture lacks trust.  Gallup recently reported that 70% of Americans actually hate their job. Only 8% of employees feel their job enhances their wellbeing.  It’s easy to imagine the impact on productivity if that statistic could be turned around.

The question is how to create this environment of trust at work? There is an enormous body of research and many methodologies seeking to address the challenge. Stephen Karpman’s seminal 1968 work on Transactional Analysis stands out in this field.

Only 8% of employees feel their job enhances their wellbeing.

Karpman’s contention is that, in the absence of a trusting environment, most of us will automatically react to life in what he refers to as ‘victimhood’. And this reaction is damaging to our wellbeing and mental health, our relationships, and our creativity and productivity.

Karpman describes this dynamic in his ‘Drama Triangle’ Model. Every dysfunctional interaction takes place on this Triangle between one of three roles: Persecutor, Rescuer and a Victim. Karpman described these as the three aspects of victimhood. Each person has a primary or most familiar role, based largely on unconscious core fears and beliefs acquired in childhood; the fear of rejection and the belief that we are not good enough in the eyes of our parents or peers. 

  • Rescuers resolve those fears by seeing themselves as helpers.  They hold unconscious beliefs that they are valuable because of their support for others. Seeing their actions as helping or protecting others, the Rescuer can tend towards control and can be manipulative but their motivation is actually to defend their self-worth. Rescuing is an addiction that comes from a need to feel valued. Their reward is to feel good about themselves. Their greatest fear is that they are not needed.
  • Persecutors repress these deep-seated fears and feelings of worthlessness behind a facade of anger or detachment. They can intimidate others to feel powerful and in control. Persecutors must always be right. Because they deny their own inadequacy and vulnerability, they will need someone to blame. They need a victim. Their reward is to deflect blame away from themselves and to feel strong and secure. Their greatest fear is powerlessness.
  • Victims respond to their subconscious sense of inadequacy by allowing themselves to believe that they are powerless and by reassuring themselves that they are therefore absolved of blame. Victims are open to both persecution and rescue by others and, at extremes, are open to self-abuse, addictions and mental illness. Their reward is to receive attention from others and absolve themselves of blame. Their greatest fear is that nobody cares.

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In the Karpman triangle, people’s responses are based on fear. Fear that exists in the absence of trust. Any position taken on the Triangle requires someone else to react by adopting an opposing role. This leads to dysfunctional relationships, a loss of empowerment, creativity, discretionary effort and fun.

Fear exists in the absence of trust.

You will see this played out in your own teams. Under pressure, an individual will communicate to a colleague in a way we have come to accept as normal in a business environment along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you haven’t finished that report yet’ or ‘how many times do I have to explain this’. This aggression, however, is essentially masking his own sense of inadequacy with a verbal assault. His team-mate will react as a victim, blaming other parts of the business (‘I’m a victim of forces out of my control’) or trying to shame the persecutor by complaining about how much pressure they are under. Someone else in the organisation will inevitably step in to rescue the victim. This may result in the original team member persecuting the rescuer (‘I can’t believe you always take her side’) or, now feeling persecuted themselves, adopting a new tactic of victimhood of their own (‘don’t gang up on me, I’m just trying to get a job done here’). And round the Triangle we go.

This is both destructive to relationships and a huge waste of energy dispersed in endless conflict instead of being directed towards a common goal. It can be so ingrained in our cultures we scarcely notice the damage. So much modern management is built on either controlling or ‘supporting’ employees; in other words, in persecuting or rescuing them. In either case we remove their autonomy and ability for self responsibility. The subconscious response is for people to react in victimhood – blame, internal bitching and jobsworthiness – which results in unhappy and unproductive cultures.

This is so much a natural part of our psychology that we don’t even need another person involved to operate in the victim triangle. We are perfectly capable of doing it on our own. We can move around the triangle in our own heads as we do in external relationships.  We criticise ourselves for being not as clever, or slim, or well-paid as someone else. When the criticism gets too painful we luxuriate in the story we tell ourselves that it’s not our fault, it’s not fair; it’s the economy, or our employer, or our genes; and we rescue ourselves by justifying, minimizing or engineering some form of escape.  

And where the damage can be greatest is with our closest relationships. It’s true to say most couples and families expend an enormous amount of energy, and generate a significant amount of pain playing the victim triangle. Just consider how often you’ve heard or said the words ‘you always..’, ‘why haven’t you..’, ‘don’t blame me..’, ‘it’s not my fault’. It’s uncomfortable to reflect on how often we play victim and force our partners to play persecutor. Or how often we rescue our children in the mistaken belief that our job as protector is to make their life easy.

But there is another way. And that is to recognise our behaviours and reactions for what they are and to take responsibility for the choice of how we respond. We have the choice to move away from the victim ‘Reactor’ paradigm of behaviour, driven on our fears and old beliefs, and towards a Creator paradigm based on trust. What bridges these two worlds is self-responsibility; the ability to take genuine responsibility for our feelings and actions.

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In our observations of high velocity and entrepreneurial cultures we see that the combination of alignment and high levels of trust create cultures that are creative rather than reactive. What makes the difference in entrepreneurial cultures is the demand for, and willingness of people to accept, true responsibility, and the willingness of the culture to embrace mistakes as a learning and not to disempower people through fear, blame and control.

What makes the difference in entrepreneurial cultures is the demand for, and willingness of people to accept, true responsibility

To make this choice, to become more entrepreneurial, we must become our own internal ‘coach’ and to train ourselves to notice our conversations and our reactions, especially those that make us feel wary or uncertain at work or at home.  

For a Rescuer to maintain the illusion of being needed there must be a victim. To feel better about themselves, the Rescuer creates dependency of colleagues, friends or family. To move towards the Creator world, those with a tendency to rescue must accept that authentic helpers act without expectation. They empower rather than disable. They encourage self-responsibility rather than promote dependency. They believe that everyone has the right to make mistakes and learn.

It can feel very threatening for someone stuck in the role of Persecutor to be honest with themselves and acknowledge that their behaviour is sourced in their fear or sense of inadequacy. It requires them to give up the easy option of feeling angry with others to mask their own fears. In the same way that the dependency of others can be an addiction that energises a rescuer, anger can act as a fuel for persecutors. It is a drug that can be hard to give up. But without accepting genuine responsibility and acknowledging the true causes of our behaviour, a persecutor cannot cross the bridge into a creator paradigm.

In order for a Victim to get off the triangle, they must acknowledge and understand that they are choosing to be dependent on others or simply on an interpretation of circumstances. Those who play a Victim role must learn to assume responsibility for themselves rather than seek to blame circumstances or look for someone to rescue them. It’s important to focus on what you can control and not blame what you can’t. How often do we blame the traffic for being late rather than acknowledge that we didn’t allow enough time? How often do we blame a meeting over-running for our lateness rather than accept our responsibility for choosing to stay at the meeting?  By blaming others, the victim disempowers himself by pretending he has no responsibility, whereas he could have the courage to politely leave an overrunning meeting or choose to stay and have the honesty to subsequently explain this choice to those he will be late to meet. By acknowledging that you have a choice, you stop the cycle of victimhood.

Whenever we fail to take responsibility for ourselves, we end up on the triangle, we are unconsciously choosing to react as a victim. To quote Lynne Forrest in her article The Three Faces of Victimas long as we chase ourselves and others around the triangle, we relegate ourselves to living in reaction rather than creation. Instead of living spontaneously and free through self-responsibility and personal choice, we settle into dull and painful lives ruled by the agendas of others and our own unconscious beliefs”.

Changing this is a gradual process; behaviours take time to change. Trust takes time to build. To quote Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn “Trust equals consistency over time. There’s no shortcut for either.”

“Trust equals consistency over time. There’s no shortcut for either.” Jeff Weiner

It takes a lot of practice and some patience. You may want to create some strategies as a team to help each other in gradually crossing the bridge to a Creator world. One major global financial institution we are working with has adopted the phrase “I just feel like saying..” before individuals embark on any conversation with colleagues that might normally – in a fear-driven, reactive world – create a victim or persecutor response. Those words are code for ‘what I am about to say is without blame or judgement and does not undermine the central trust in our relationship’.

It’s also a choice. You may conclude that you and your team will be happier, healthier and more productive in a more self-responsible, Creator world. But, inevitably, some situations will drag you back to Reactor. In some situations you may even achieve more of what you need in that old world. Just observe what happened and why, how you behaved and what reaction it created and choose again next time. When you don’t feel good about how you have behaved with a colleague, ask yourself what position you took and the reaction you caused and learn from this.

Remember, how others see us is not what we should focus on. How we see ourselves is what creates change. With awareness it’s amazing how quickly you see victim behaviour all over the place. But you can’t force others to comply, even with a Creator world, without yourself being a persecutor. You can only take responsibility for your own actions. As Ghandi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

Ultimately, this is a choice. For most of us we interact with others through old, unconsciously held and limiting beliefs of our own inadequacy. These core beliefs combine into the stories we tell ourselves. Trust and openness that are the core of all great teams requires vulnerability and honesty. Believing at heart that we are unlovable or defective makes it impossible to reveal ourselves, impossible to build trust-based and productive cultures at work or at home.

We are not victims unless we choose to be so.  As we liberate ourselves through self-responsibility and trust, we transform our lives – and the organisations we spend our time within.

A high trust culture is critical to building the adaptable, innovative and entrepreneurial teams  and businesses that will prosper in a volatile and ambiguous world. Trust engages and emboldens talent, fosters ideas and innovation and attracts customers. And trust starts with the individual and their willingness to take responsibility.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash