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How To Break Free From Workplace Drama With A Compassionate Accountability® Narrative

Written by: Nathan Regier, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Nathan Regier

Managers have an extremely difficult role. They are responsible for leading complex and often high-stakes projects in an unforgiving environment; pressure from above to achieve success, pressure from below to have it all figured out, and pressure from within to meet their own expectations. All of this, while having to depend on the most important and unpredictable component of all their people. A key to maintaining positive morale and productivity lies in the narratives that managers cultivate in their teams. A compassionate accountability narrative can help managers transcend drama and help their teams thrive in the face of adversity

Photo of happy business people.

The power of narrative in leadership

To be successful, managers must build strong relationships with their employees and their “first team” of fellow managers. A manager’s success depends a lot on how they perceive their role, and how their team perceives them. Perception is reality. 

In this article on the power of narratives, Wendy O’Donovan Phillips argues that most of what we perceive is based on stories. The stories we repeat become our reality, so we repeat the stories that we want to be true. Social media and politics offer plenty of examples of how this works. 

Simply put, a narrative is a story about somethingStories are essential to us because as human beings and social animals, we are storytelling creatures. The human brain is wired for narratives. Narratives shape our perceptions, which in turn form our realities and end up influencing our choices and actions. They are how we make meaning out of what happens to us.

The stories we tell ourselves have a tremendous impact on our success. Managing complexity toward a successful outcome requires a meaningful and motivating narrative around three critical questions. What future do we face? What future do we want? What must we do to get there? There are no perfect answers to these questions. But the narratives will guide how people make sense of what’s going on and what actions they take.

Why narratives matter

Narratives provide meaning: The stories we tell ourselves help provide meaning to what’s happening. Consider the difference between these two narratives to make meaning of unexpected hardship. “What did I do to deserve this?” vs. “What is life trying to teach me?” 

Narratives help justify behavior: Narratives give us a reason to act a certain way. Good or bad, the stories we tell ourselves will guide our actions and help soothe cognitive dissonance. Here are some examples: “I already gave in and ate one bite of cake, so I may as well eat the whole thing.” or, "People won’t respect you if you show vulnerability.” At the extreme, consider the power of conspiracy theories to justify harmful behavior.

Narratives inspire greater effort: Stories can inspire us to reach higher and give more. Underdogs who “have nothing to lose,” or teams that are striving to “make the groundbreaking discovery” draw extra energy and perseverance from their stories.

Three self-defeating leadership narratives

Leaders are in a unique position to help guide the narratives for their teams, positively or negatively.

We’ve been working with leaders and their teams for 20 years, and have noticed three self-defeating narratives that undermine morale, teamwork, resilience and productivity. Each one is based on one of the three drama roles first discovered by Dr. Stephen Karmpan and outlined in The Drama Triangle. Each is a maladaptive, but habitual and predicable, response to the conflict and pressure that managers face. 

Victim narrative

The story goes like this: We are victims of circumstance. We are at the mercy of forces outside our control. Leadership doesn’t care about us and makes decisions without considering our needs. We have no choice but to go along with it or suffer the consequences. We have no voice and little control over our destinies.

Victim managers reinforce a Victim Narrative with statements like, “I’m just the messenger,” or “My hands are tied.” They feel trapped and insufficient most of the time. When conflict arises, they often give in or give up.

The Victim Narrative results in passive compliance. Employees exert minimal effort to get by and avoid taking healthy risks. They are not open about their feelings or what they need because they believe no-one cares.

Persecutor narrative

The story goes like this: It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and you have to take matters into your own hands. Leadership is incompetent and malicious, so don’t trust them. No-one is looking out for you so take measures to protect yourself.  

Persecutor managers reinforce a Persecutor Narrative with statements like, “I can’t protect you forever,” or “There’s no telling what they will do next.” When conflict arises, they often resort to ultimatums and threats.

The Persecutor Narrative results in toxic and psychologically unsafe work environments where people look out for themselves at the expense of supporting each other. Employees withhold information to gain an advantage, and will throw each other under the bus to protect their own turf. Finger-pointing is the norm.

Rescuer narrative

The story goes like this: Leaders know what’s best. They are the experts. Trust them to take care of you.

Rescuer managers reinforce a Rescuer Narrative with statements like, “Let me show you how to do it,” or “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” When conflict arises, they jump in with unsolicited advice. They are burned out because they assume responsibility for having all the answers and solving everyone’s problems. 

The Rescuer Narrative results in lowered confidence and initiative because employees are conditioned to second-guess their own capabilities and wait for leadership to hand them the solution.

As a manager, which of the three narratives is most common for you? What are the consequences to your own wellbeing? What about the morale and productivity of your team?

Conflict is inevitable: Drama is optional

Life is full of challenges. Conflict is inevitable. How we respond to these challenges can be positive or negative. A negative response is drama.  

Notice that each of the three self-defeating leadership narratives described above involves a maladaptive response to conflict and stress. Each one involves some kind of adversarial struggle where there’s a winner and a looser. Yet each one also has a self-justifying belief system attached to it. 

The Victim Narrative is about struggling alone because nobody cares. The Persecutor narrative is about struggling against because you are either a winner or a loser. The Rescuer narrative is about struggling instead of others to be the hero. 

Remember that narratives provide meaning and help justify behavior, even if the facts don’t support it and even if the behavior is unproductive. That’s why drama-based cultures are so resistant to change.

There’s a better way.

Transforming the struggle with compassionate accountability

Compassionate Accountability is an alternative to drama-based, self-defeating narratives. Compassionate Accountability rejects the notion that you have to chose between being nice and getting things done. Compassion without accountability gets you nowhere and ends up in a Victim narrative. Accountability without compassion gets you alienated and ends up in a Persecutor narrative. Confusion between the two undermines capability and reinforces a Rescuer narrative.

Compassion originates from the Latin root meaning “struggle with.” Compassionate Accountability means getting alongside people in the struggle while focusing on accountability for results. It’s about building connection while getting results. It’s about finding purpose and meaning in the struggle instead of justifying a self-defeating narrative.

A compassionate accountability narrative

A compassionate accountability narrative can be summed up in this one statement: 

We are valuable, capable, and responsible. 

There are six main principles in a Compassionate Accountability narrative.

  • People are unconditional valuable and deserve to be respected.

  • Even if someone makes a mistake or fails to perform, they are still worthwhile asa person. 

  • People are capable of positive change and contribution. 

  • Under the right conditions, anyone can contribute. 

  • No matter what happened before, we share responsibility for what happens next. 

  • Pointing fingers gets us further away from a solution. 

Six story lines of a compassionate accountability narrative

Managers can build a Compassionate Accountability narrative by reinforcing these story lines. 

“Our experience matters.” Our feelings are valid and real. Whether we are afraid, anxious, angry or excited, we will listen to each other. We won’t discount, minimize or avoid the difficult feelings. We won’t take sides.

“We will learn from our mistakes.” When mistakes happen, we will acknowledge the discomfort without attacking or blaming each other. Instead, we will explore what worked and what didn’t, revise our approach, and make improvements.

“We believe in your potential.” We will help you learn and grow. We will provide opportunities to master new skills and become more competent. We will challenge you in ways that are energizing and rewarding. We can do hard things and we can solve big problems.

“Everyone can be part of the solution.” We will ask for your input and take it seriously. We will invite you to help solve the problems we are facing. We will keep the focus on solutions instead of problems.

“We will focus on what we can control.” Instead of complaining about the people and things we can’t control, we will focus on what we can control; our attitudes, feelings and behaviors. We will be known for improving things.

“We will take ownership over our part of every situation.” Regardless of what happened before or what happened to us, we will take responsibility for what we do next. We will avoid blaming or giving up. We will make and keep commitments with each other to pursue excellence in everything we do. 

Where to start

Managers who want to transform the narrative can begin immediately. Try these next steps.

  1. Share this article with your team, and declare your desire to tell a different story.

  2. Gather your team for a discussion of the points in this article and get their perspective.

  3. Address each of the six story lines one by one by asking these questions; What are we doing now that’s not working? What would we need to do differently to embrace this story line?

  4. Each time drama threatens to creep in, refer to the six story lines as a reminder about “what would Compassionate Accountability do?

  5. Post this statement where everyone can see. “What would I do next if I treated myself and others as valuable, capable, and responsible?”

Managers who embrace a Compassionate Accountability narrative can help their teams transcend the temptation of drama and thrive instead of struggling in unproductive ways. Everyone would like to believe that their problems are caused by bad leadership above them, the other department, or economic conditions out of their control. But this only causes drama. Compassionate Accountability changes the story, changes our outlook, changes our behaviors, and changes the outcome.

Do you want help building a new, more positive narrative in your team? Next Element can help with customized assessment, consulting and training. Contact Next Element today.

Get your copy of my new book and start building your culture of compassionate accountability today.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Youtube, and visit my website for more info!

Nathan Regier Brainz Magazine

Nathan Regier, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Nate Regier, Ph.D. is the CEO of Next Element, a global leadership consultancy helping companies build cultures of Compassionate Accountability through culture diagnostics, consulting, training, and train-the-trainer certifications. Nate is the author of four books on leadership, compassion, and culture. In his newest book, Compassionate Accountability: How Leaders Build Connection and Get Results, Nate outlines the roadmap for the next generation of leaders and thriving workplace cultures. He hosts a podcast called OnCompassion with Dr. Nate, is a sought-after top-100 keynote speaker, and appears on multiple podcasts and industry publications.



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