Leaders today spend a lot of time trying to figure out why they can’t get the level of engagement and performance from employees that they require despite their best efforts. Their energy and time also go into trying to “fix” their employees, compensate for unsatisfactory performance and “rescue” them when they are in emotional distress. Many of our clients spend money and other resources trying to deal with employee disengagement and performance issues without success. This leaves them wondering “what is wrong with employees?” They don’t look at how they might be contributing to the issue through dysfunctional, self-protective leadership behaviours such as doing the employees’ work when they fail to meet expectations, reteaching tasks that have already been taught, spending hours discussing an employee’s unhappiness or their own failure to delegate for fear of overwhelming them. Deciding to compensate for poor performance instead of managing it is an act of self-disempowerment, is self-protective, and a function of the Victim Leadership Persona.
When employees don’t behave the way leaders expect them to, leaders get triggered into self-protective emotionally driven behaviours based on the fight-flight mechanism in the brain. The fight response causes them to get angry or frustrated and act out by overpowering their employees. With the flight response, they give their power away, silently seething and putting on the mask that most leaders wear when they don’t know how to effectively manage performance, insubordination, or give corrective feedback. In fact, many leaders confess they are afraid to say anything to an employee because of unpleasant reactions from them and so they disempower themselves, allowing poor performance and bad behaviour to persist.
Unknowingly, the leader has shifted to self-protective survival behaviours where the agenda is now to survive the situation and continue to feel good about themselves instead of dealing with the performance issue. We call this shift “going behind the shield”. When we are behind our shield, our thinking is to find a way to avoid conflict, emotions and defensiveness from others while feeling some degree of control. From this position, we find reasons for not acting and disempower ourselves in the process. We come up with all kinds of explanations as to why we shouldn’t do what is our job to do for fear of negative consequences to us. And despite how bold, directive and optimistic we usually are, we revert to a persona that is powerless to do anything but rescue the situation. Leaders have ways of rationalizing with such finesse that it looks so logical and reasonable. But it is highly destructive and causes organizational dysfunctions as employees end up having too much power because their boss has given theirs away.
Going behind the shield
Humans have a system in the brain for shielding ourselves psychologically. Our self-protective system’s agenda is to protect us, to stabilize us when we feel shaky, insecure or frightened. It isn’t to be judged as good or bad. We would not survive psychologically if we didn’t have this system. The self-protective system of the psychological system guards the integrity of our authentic self and protects us from emotional harm. This system is to the brain like the immune system is to the body, springing to action to ward off physiological threats. We don’t have to tell it to react because it knows its job. With the self-protective system, we need to learn what is a real threat and what is a perceived threat, so our shields aren’t up all the time.
In the psychological realm of the self-protective system resides 4 archetypes of survival or personas that our authentic self pulls out when we feel threatened. These shields have a connection to Jung’s 4 mental functions located in neural networks in the brain. When we shift to our shields, we start using the behaviours and characteristics of the persona we need to shield us from the perceived psychological threat. In other words, we are on the defensive, using fight-flight instinctual reactions. Each Persona has its own agenda, story, and script. When we operate from any of the different Personas, it’s like letting another person be in the driver’s seat in our life.
While there are four leadership personas or shields, we are going to focus on the Victim Leadership Persona and the shield it uses to deflect perceived threats to its self-concept. Because rescuing is part of the Victim Triangle, you’ll see how leaders slip into the role of victim/rescuer to save the situation at the expense of themselves.
Self-Disempowerment by the Victim Leadership Persona
The Victim Leadership Persona has to do with self-disempowerment. When acting from its energies, it takes away our power and sense of personal agency by seeing situations through the lens of helplessness and inability to do anything other than to let things happen. In leadership, this archetypal energy takes hold during challenging situations that call upon us to act from either our role authority or personal power. Our psychological system perceives a threat and our shields go up. To maintain our self-image we react to what is going on by blaming others and representing ourselves as a victim in the situation. Our mantra is “It’s not my fault” and we create a story that deflects any blame onto us.
We tend to use the Victim Leadership Persona when instead of acting from our role authority as leaders, we react from the flight response, feeling like others (employees, peers, suppliers, bosses, etc.) are victimizing us. Feeling helpless because we don’t know what to do or say, we withdraw and go along with others, accepting blame, excuses and even lies. Inside of us, it’s a different story. Those same people we are being nice to and going along with, we secretly judge as unreasonable, lazy, or ridiculous. But because we don’t feel empowered to disagree, correct or negotiate, we try to rescue the situation while victimizing ourselves instead of stepping up and taking responsibility for correcting the situation.
The Drama of the Victim Persona
The Victim Persona is associated with Karpman’s Drama Triangle. The triangle involves 3 distinct positions or roles: Victim (Flight), the Persecutor/Victimizer (Fight), or the Rescuer/Hero (Freeze). Behaviour from all three positions has the same intention, which is to gain control of the behaviour of others and restore a feeling of power in ourselves. Here’s a brief description of the 3 positions:
Victim: The victim is not really a victim, they just feel that way, act that way, and interpret the behaviour of others as though they are being victimized. They feel persecuted, unlucky, oppressed helpless, and powerless. They don’t see their part in creating the situation, looking outside themselves and accusing others of abusing their power. It is everyone else’s fault but theirs and they share no blame or responsibility. And because they have no responsibility for creating the issue, they take no steps to resolve it.
The Victimizer/Persecutor: The persecutor is the villain in the victim’s story. They are the person who is to blame and it is always their fault. They are perceived or accused of being judgemental, critical, authoritative and out to get others. To the victim, the persecutor holds all the cards, has all the power and is responsible for their feelings. It is they who have to make things better because they are the cause of all the issues. In most cases, the Victimizer is someone decisive, confident and competent. Their personal power makes them an easy target for the Victim.
The Rescuer/Hero/Heroine: Rescuers take it upon themselves to rescue others from their feelings. They feel guilty if they don’t help victims and often react to one side of a story without fact-checking. They listen and agree with the victim to appear supportive and empathetic. Unfortunately, their behaviour supports the notion that the victimizer is bad and the victim is good. Giving sympathy is disempowering, especially when it is to someone acting from the victim persona. Rescuers may feel powerless in their own job and rescuing employees gives them some relief because it allows them to take care of the problems of others and to focus their attention on someone else’s needs.
Employee as Victim, Leader as Rescuer
When we shift behind the shield into the Victim role, leaders tend to act from the Rescuer of the Victim Leadership Persona rather than managing their employee’s performance. They focus more on validating and supporting the employee than on holding them accountable. As leaders we need to understand that employees will behave and act from the Victim persona, and for us not to get pulled into our Rescuer, we need to expect it and depersonalize their behaviour.
Here are some of the things an employee will say when acting from the Victim:
- I didn’t know I was supposed to do that. You didn’t tell me.
- I told you I was having issues with child care. I don’t know why you thought I would be able to be at work on time.
- You never gave me feedback that I wasn’t doing a great job. Now you’re telling me I need to improve!
- I thought you’d appreciate me taking initiative instead of being mad I didn’t do it the way you asked. I think you are trying to hold me back.
- I didn’t ask you because I was afraid if I told you there was an issue you would get mad.
- You never told me I couldn’t miss the deadline. I didn’t realize you were so rigid about it.
Notice how the Victim attacks and accuses the leader, absolving themselves of any responsibility. This is usually where leaders get snagged into the drama triangle and give away their power. Instead of focusing on the performance issue, their Victim is triggered and they start defending themselves (“I am not rigid.” Victim), apologizing for causing a problem (“I am sorry I didn’t tell you.” Victimizer) or empathizing (“I see why you are upset. What can I do to make this work for you?” Rescuer).
Most leaders need to watch they aren’t pulled into the Rescuer. This position of the drama triangle is where we can feel some power to make the uncomfortable feelings go away. But it’s like falling on the sword. We sacrifice or victimize ourselves to make employees happy.
The Disempowered Leader
When we use the Victim Leadership Persona, we interpret the actions and behaviours of people and events through what we feel we are entitled to that others aren’t giving us. Many leaders believe that an employee’s behaviour should be respectful of them and their authority and if they aren’t acting the way they believe they should, they are being disrespectful. This is the most common Victim story leaders share. Leaders will talk about how badly employees treat them and that they don’t deserve it because of how much they do to make employees happy. In the Victim’s story, we are never at fault and we are looking for others to agree with us and sympathize. What most leaders don’t do is look at how they are contributing by not defining behavioural expectations and managing performance.
Here are a few ways that the Victim Leadership Persona acts, disempowering themselves by seeing the issue with others and not themselves.
- blame and judge employees for errors, poor performance without giving clear expectations or course correction
- get upset or frustrated with employee behaviour without correction
- are passive and let employees take advantage, then complain
- don’t say no or hold their authority; lack boundaries; feel sorry for self because they can’t get traction
- are upset when peers, senior leaders try to help us when we complain
- let employees be insubordinate without consequence
- see others as taking our power, don’t see ourselves as giving it away
- victimize ourselves (negative self-talk)
Rescuing, not leading
When leaders are allowed to use their Victim Leadership Persona in whatever form it takes, it has a direct impact on the entire organization, its people, culture and bottom line. The more leaders act in a disempowered fashion and don’t take responsibility for their people’s performance and behaviour, the less focussed they are on results and objectives. When leaders get stuck in the Rescuer side of the drama triangle, they diminish their leadership authority and allow employees to stay stuck in patterns of entitlement and poor performance. Feelings before outcomes victimize the business at the expense of the emotional needs of the employees.
The Rescuer helps others feel good about themselves while neglecting their own feelings, needs or responsibilities. In this position, leaders will act as though they are always okay, and it’s other people that aren’t. They are actually enabling others’ behaviour instead of standing up for what is right, disagreeing, or correcting the perception or performance of the employee. When we rescue someone, it sets up an uneven balance of power, with us feeling like we are on top. It’s like saying, “I have no issues. You’re the one with the problem.” The reality is that Rescuers end up overworked, chronically tired, and unable to take the reins and lead their people.
Rescuing leads to failing at own job
The Rescuer feels like they are having an impact, but it’s usually because they are doing their employees’ jobs for them or making them feel happy by taking their side. These are usually the leaders who report they don’t have time to be strategic or plan because they have too much to do. They don’t take responsibility for the fact that it’s up to them to plan their way out of it. They fail to meet expectations because (poor them) they have been working so hard because of their entitled employees, lack of resources, or any other excuse that takes the heat off of them for planning their way to success. They are so busy swooping in to save the day that they don’t see they are failing to do their job. When held accountable, they feel like they are being victimized by their boss.
The role of the rescuer is less obvious as a self-protective behaviour than the victim or victimizer. They gain respect and status for being needed and for being the person who comes to the rescue. They also get an ego boost and pride in accomplishment. The downside is that it’s for doing someone else’s work, not their own. Some leaders take pride in the fact they have a line of people outside their door waiting to talk to them. They foster dependence on them to satisfy their own needs. What is actually happening is they aren’t delegating authority to their team or managing their time. And when employees interrupt them when they are on the phone or in a meeting with a pressing issue, they feel victimized by their own inability to create boundaries. The dysfunctions caused by leaders rescuing are many because while there is symptomatic relief, the real issues aren’t dealt with and issues resurface in time. The Rescuer focuses first on feelings so no one feels bad instead of dealing with the issues.
Rescuers allow employees to victimize them
The Victim Leadership Persona is triggered by the fear that if their position power and authority are asserted, employees won’t be able to handle it and will be upset. They allow employees to do their job the way they see fit rather than having any direction, coaching or guidance, for fear of offending them. Having harmony and making sure everyone is happy becomes a priority over meeting the needs of the business and employees mastering their roles. They are excessively “hands-off” and abdicate responsibility and authority to subordinates, leading to employees feeling they are more capable and entitled than they merit. Employees end up being insubordinate, oppositional and disrespectful of leaders who affirm their victim story when employees behave this way.
This reminds me of a client we are currently working with as an example of what happens when employees feel entitled to do or say whatever they feel like, and when leaders let them.
Our client, a manager, recently hired into their role, reported that an employee had burst into her office, accusing her of being rude, just because she had asked the employee to have a report from her by the end of the day. The report was already three days overdue. The employee told her that wasn’t the way things were done in this company and she better not try talking to her like this again. Because our client had little onboarding or interaction with her manager, she apologized and told her employee she could get the report when she had time.
Over several coaching sessions, including one with our client’s boss, we defined the issue, reviewed cultural norms for leading, and acceptable employee behaviours. We helped her create a feedback planner to guide the conversation when she met with the employee. The planner included expectations for getting her reports in on time and for acceptable behaviours. The employee was given feedback on her communication style and consequences for behaving in the fashion she had. She apologized to our client, saying that she had felt overwhelmed and that she was embarrassed about the way she had behaved. The two spoke about options for what the employee could do if she were feeling that way again instead of acting out and agreed to have check-in meetings to keep in alignment on the status of work.
When leaders allow employees the freedom to “dump their bucket” or act out their emotions, they can expect their authority to diminish. They end up giving their employees free rein and the authority to do their work in the manner they see fit. Allowing this behaviour causes a lack of individual and team alignment behind the goals of the organization.
When we as leaders react from the “Flight” position in the instinctual brain, we see ourselves as powerless, helpless, and ashamed. We back down and withdraw from situations seeing power outside of ourselves, feeling misunderstood or wronged by others. We then shift to the rescuer, apologizing for being insensitive instead of challenging the perception of the person accusing or misrepresenting the facts. By rescuing, leaders feel they are taking back some power in the situation.
When an employee is in the Victim Persona, they act as though leaders should know how sensitive they are and treat them accordingly. The problem is that many leaders begin to act as though it’s their job “because they are so sensitive, I can only say so much to them or they will get upset.“ Major decisions in organizations are be made around not upsetting an employee. A leader will make up a story about how an employee might react and expect everyone to believe it. They truly believe they are powerless to do anything about an employee’s behaviour when they haven’t even tried to have a conversation. This is because when caught up in the Victim Persona, we aren’t trying to be objective, resolve issues, or be responsible. We are defending our own vulnerability, shielding ourselves from difficult emotions or conflict.
One of the ways we see leaders express their pent-up frustration in coaching or training sessions is by complaining about employees’ behaviour without doing anything about it. They approach the subject with a “Can you believe their behaviour….” as though employees not acting the way a leader expects was invented just to frustrate them or is something new. Leaders will inflate the behaviours using generalizations and judgements (they are always disorganized, they never get reports in on time.) In a coaching session, a CFO was complaining that because reports weren’t completed by employees until one day before month-end, he couldn’t spend enough time reviewing or questioning data and employees were making mistakes that he had to correct. I suggested he change the timeline to have the reports handed in 3 days ahead of the deadline to give himself additional time. He stared at me for a moment and then said. “It never occurred to me to do that. I have been complaining about this to my peers and my wife for months.” Because he was so entrenched in the Victim, he didn’t feel entitled to ask for what he needed and instead blamed employees for making mistakes he had to correct because there was no time for him to send them back.
Self-devaluing and disempowering
The Victim Leadership Persona makes decisions from an “I can’t” mentality and uses self-devaluing/self-victimizing self-talk to stop themselves from using their power. Our CFO client took 3 months to change the timing of the reports because he convinced himself that he would be inflicting undue hardship on his direct reports by changing the schedule. He didn’t want to be mean or brutal in his demands, as he put it. As a result, he continued to inflict hardship on himself at month-end. When he finally made the change, he couldn’t believe how easy his request for the change was accepted and delivered.
Some leaders will draw attention to their shortcomings and deficiencies as a way of getting attention and support. A leader I worked with years ago used to start a conversation by saying, “You won’t believe how stupid I am.” They would then go on to report on some trivial thing they had done while their audience jumped to their rescue with praise. This tactic is similar to when a dog rolls over on its back to signify submission and to prevent aggression in others. It is the need to control the behaviour of others wrapped up in an expression of helplessness. We openly admit to being scattered, incompetent, or hopeless and talk about how anxious we are about things that have never happened and probably never will. “It’s so hard” or “It’s going to be hard…” is often a sign that the Victim has been triggered.
What to do
Disempowering ourselves starts from within. We need to recognize that we are keeping our self-esteem low by using self-judgment and criticisms, and negative self-talk is disempowering and stops us from carrying out leadership authority. If you realize you’ve been rescuing your employees, you also realize that you are not leading them and it’s time to do something about it. Focusing on performance instead of feelings is the first step. You need to see leadership as an impersonal activity rather than a place to get your emotional and ego needs met. That means that you have to give up the pleasure of rescuing for the long-term satisfaction of meeting your goals.
While you don’t get the immediate payoff that rescuing others gives, managing performance leads to improved performance, increased productivity, less emotional drama and team cohesiveness. Rescuing limits employee potential and prevents task and job mastery. It also gets in the way of the organization achieving its goals. But most importantly for leaders is how it stops your own development as a leader because you’re choosing to do tasks of employees who are paid much less than you. Something as simple as expecting your employees to provide a daily progress update instead of you asking them where they are on the project shifts the relationship so the employee is working for you and not the other way around.
For more information on how you can lead with authority, get a copy of So You Think You Can Lead? on Amazon.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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