Are you an above - the - line project leader?

Thomas M. Rogers, PhD, PMP

University of South Carolina Upstate

“Are you an above-the-line project leader?” asks a seemingly simple question, which forces us, as project leaders, to make a choice: we are either above the line or below the line (Sumner, 2006, p. 127); you cannot straddle the line. The Project Management Institute (PMI) created the Talent Triangle with one “leg” designated as leadership and altered the mix of requirements for continuing certification to include at least eight Professional Development Units (PDUs) in leadership. Further, “66% of organizations say that leadership skills are not as teachable, but are most important for early success in project management” (Project Management Institute, 2015, p. 1). The Empowerment Dynamic is a tool project leaders can utilize to pull themselves (and their project team) out of the Drama Triangle to strive for above the line performance and leadership. This paper presents how to determine if you, the project leader, or your project team are above the line.

Project Leadership

Knowing where your project is right now and where your project is headed is necessary to lead a project team. Where a project is headed comes from the scope statement and the resulting objectives and deliverables will provide the destination. Project leaders’ assessments of where you are now tend to focus on the physical resources assigned to a project and the skill sets of people assigned to a project. If a project team possesses the necessary skill sets and the needed resources to fulfill the project objectives and deliverables, why do so many projects fail to be on scope, on time, or on budget? (Stanford Group, 2009, p. 1). Why is a project leader successful on one project, but fails on his or her next project? Missing from this assessment is the recognition and acceptance of the roles project leaders and members of the project team play, which enhance or inhibit the success of a project. To be above-the-line project leaders, we must know how to reinforce the roles that enhance the probability of success of the project and how to counter-balance the non-productive roles. To gain this knowledge, first, we must know what it means to be below the line.

Below the Line

Being below the line means you're focusing on yourself; you're focusing on “me.” If you're focused on “me” and not considering the members of your project team, then you are not leading them. As project leaders, we fear failing to bring a project in on scope, on time, or on budget; we fear exposing a lack of knowledge, not knowing which action to take, and exposure as less than perfect. Fear is the first and biggest motivator, which pushes us below the line.

Your project sponsor blaming you for something within the project not happening just as they wish is usually caused by his or her fear of project failure. One result of this fear is to level blame at the project leader (Dethmer, 2014, p. 47). Whether or not you control or are responsible for the event, which caused your project sponsor to blame you is irrelevant. This blame puts you on the defensive and pushes you below the line. Project leaders must hold team members accountable for their actions and results, but passing on the blame from your project sponsor to a team member or blaming a team member of your own volition differs from holding someone responsible for their actions. Blaming someone means you are not thinking about the individual or the project team, but attempting to shift responsibility from yourself (i.e., “me”) to them.

Another result of fear, whether from the project sponsor or the project leader, is to shame someone else (Dethmer, 2014, p. 47). Shaming or humiliating someone creates an atmosphere of fear for the individual, which pervades to the whole team. Shame is an internal emotion, which usually manifests externally as embarrassment. Embarrassment reflects a feeling of a vulnerability, which pushes individuals and whole project teams below the line and into the Drama Triangle.

The Drama Triangle

Stephen Kaufman first described the Drama Triangle in his article, Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis (1968, p. 40). The Drama Triangle (see Exhibit 1) reflects the inter-play between power and responsibility and is comprised of three roles.


Exhibit 1: The drama triangle.

Victims represent the central role in the Drama Triangle. Without a victim, no one needs a Rescuer and no target exists for the Persecutor. Victims are overwhelmed by their feelings of vulnerability and lack of power and do not take responsibility for their vulnerability. Victims identify themselves by simultaneously agreeing with you but, also, not agreeing with you. Victims often identify themselves with statements that start with “Yes, but …” or “I understand, but …” Whether explicitly stated or not, you need to listen for the “but” in their statement. This type of statement combines with a “woe is me” attitude to indicate that this person inhabits the role of Victim.

Rescuers claim to want to, and have every intention to, finish their own work, except they had to “help.” Rescuers attempt to cover up their vulnerability by “helping” victims, even though the victims have not asked for help. For someone who claims to want to “help,” rescuers don't try to find out the needs of the victim first and, in fact, shame the victim by implying they cannot perform their assigned role on the project team. Rescuers will do most of the work for the victim, but do not get their own work done. You can identify rescuers by their failure to complete their own work or by their unwillingness to help in emergency situations because they are “too busy.” Rescuers commonly use statements such as, “I would have completed my work if I had not had to help <insert Victim's name> with his or her work.” When speaking with or observing a rescuer on your project team, take note of their focus on “helping” others with their work instead of focusing on completing their own work.

Persecutors are usually unaware of their power and, therefore, do not appreciate the negative and, at times, destructive impact their actions have on the victim. Persecutors expose their vulnerability by blaming others team members (or non-team members) for their own inability to complete their assigned tasks. They do not take responsibility for blaming or shaming victims. Persecutors often start out as victims or rescuers, and their statements reflect an, “If it weren't for you, the project would be fine” attitude. When identifying a persecutor, look for the keen awareness of the tasks they need to complete and an attempt to shift responsibility for their failure to complete their assigned tasks to someone else. Persecutors will also try to force the cooperation of the rest of the team with statements such as, “We would have completed our work if not for …” with the intent of masking their own individual failure.

The central themes across all roles in the Drama Triangle are a focus on “me” and the unwillingness or inability to recognize their vulnerability or accept responsibility for their actions. The above descriptions of the roles in the Drama Triangle reveal methods project leaders can employ to identify the roles currently played by their project team members, including the role the project leader is playing.

Identifying Roles

The project leader must identify who is playing which role (Bridge, 2014, p. 5), which includes whether he or she is above the line. The stresses and pressures serving as a project leader makes you as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than other team members to falling into the Drama Triangle. Identifying who is playing which role is particularly difficult if the project leader is below the line and caught in the Drama Triangle. A first step, which will help to identify who (including the project leader) is playing which role is to take notes; yes, notes. Writing down who is playing which role in a given situation will help the project leader emotionally detach just a little (, 2014, p. 3). This modicum of objectivity is an excellent method for project leaders to know which role to utilize to counter-balance individuals and encourage them. For project leaders to employ The Empowerment Dynamic, you must know which roles you and your project team are playing to respond properly.

The best approach to determining if your performance is above the line is to have another project leader serve as a mentor and sounding board to provide feedback on your actions. Utilizing another project leader means they are not part of your project team and can provide a more objective assessment of whether or not your performance is above the line. Be careful which project leader you choose to serve as your mentor. If your mentor is caught in the Drama Triangle, they will not be effective as a mentor. Evaluate potential mentors and choose wisely.

The Vicious Cycle

People caught in the Drama Triangle will change from one role to another, and these changes increase the difficulty in identifying the role a project team member is playing at a specific point in time. (Reeves, 2015, p. 2). People, in general, don't want to be victims. At some point in time, when a rescuer comes to “help,” the victim will lash out at him or her; when the victim lashes out at the Rescuer, the Victim shifts from being a victim to being a persecutor. At this point in the relationship the rescuer will, most commonly, shift roles to victim. This shift becomes obvious when the original victim (now persecutor) states that “If it weren't for you …,” and the original rescuer (now victim) responds that he or she was just trying to “help.”

Victims may also shift roles to that of rescuer. Victims recognize other victims and, in an effort to mask their own vulnerability, move to be a rescuer by “helping” another victim. When the other victim shifts to the role of persecutor and lashes out, the team member who shifted to rescuer shifts back to being a victim. As implied in these scenarios, persecutors usually start off as victims or rescuers in the Drama Triangle (Lucas, 2105, p. 1). The shift from either of these roles is an attempt to exert power over someone else.

Regardless of their current role in the Drama Triangle, people work to keep the status quo. In particular, the status quo is maintained because of the natural affinity between the victim and the rescuer (Lewis, 2015, p. 1). People in all of these roles maintain the status quo under the umbrella of “To Me” (see Exhibit 2). In other words, everything that is happening in the Drama Triangle is being done “To Me.” How do we break this status quo and move out of the Drama Triangle?


Exhibit 2: Below the line in the “to me” quadrant.

The Power of Recognition and Responsibility

The first step toward breaking out of the Drama Triangle is to recognize you're in the Drama Triangle. This recognition is the “biggest step” (Menzies, 2015, p. 1) in escaping to and leveraging The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) (Emerald, 2010, p. 67).

The next step in breaking free of the Drama Triangle is to accept responsibility for yourself and your actions (Dethmer, 2014, p. 50). Recognizing you're in the Drama Triangle, combined with accepting full responsibility for your own actions, is the impetus which allows you to determine where you are in your relationships with the project team, understand why these relationships are not working personally or for the good of the project, and take action. Recognizing where you are in the Drama Triangle, accepting responsibility for yourself and your actions, and taking action moves you from things are happening “To Me” to things are done “By Me.” (see Exhibit 3).

Relocation to the “By Me” quadrant is precarious because fear still reigns and brings to the fore your vulnerability. You must now navigate the fear of being open with yourself (and others) and risking embarrassment. If you let your fear of embarrassment grow, you can relocate right back into the Drama Triangle. The amount of stress is significantly lower than when you were in the Drama Triangle, but being in the “By Me” quadrant does not mean you are doing everything by yourself. You are, however, recognizing your vulnerability and accepting responsibility for performing your job: You no longer seek to rescue someone else; you no longer try to persecute others for your problems or setbacks; and you no longer feel others are looking down on you.


Exhibit 3: Below the line with “by me” quadrant.

The relocation to “By Me” adjusts your perspective from the need to be right to being present; being present requires awareness of your situation. To help prevent regression to the Drama Triangle, the project leader needs a destination around which to build awareness for the project team and serves as the starting point for building trust. Accepting and acting with awareness of the destination means “By Me” is merely a point on our journey on the way to “Through Me” (see Exhibit 4). “Through Me” is where you become the conduit to assist others to creatively perform tasks to meet the project team's needs. A guide on our journey in above-the-line project leadership is The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) (Emerald, 2010, p. 67).


Exhibit 4: Above the line with “through me” quadrant.

The Empowerment Dynamic (TED)

The creator is the central role in The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) (Emerald, 2010, p. 67) (see Exhibit 5). The creator orientation is the counter-point to the victim orientation. The victim orientation is problem-focused, but the creator orientation is outcome-focused. The project leader needs to be the Cceator who seeks the most efficient and effective path to meeting project objectives and deliverables.


Exhibit 5: Above the line with TED.

In the planning stage, the project leader possesses the vision for the project and the current reality of resources with respect to the scope of the project. These are the two elements, which project leaders need to fully engage in The Empowerment Dynamic. The project leader uses these two points to create the path from the starting point to final destination to meet all of the project objectives and deliverables. Creation of this path to project success allows the project leader to connect and engage with his or her project team and opens the door for the project leader to employ the other two roles in The Engagement Dynamic: Coach and Challenger (see Exhibit 6).


Exhibit 6: The drama triangle and TED.

Project leaders acting as coaches are the counter-point and the antidote to the rescuer. Instead of being a rescuer and performing a task (or tasks) for a victim, a coach will guide the rescuer (aka their project team member) while allowing him or her to perform the actual work and become self-sufficient to handle future events.

A project leader acting as a challenger puts a call to action to the individual playing the role of persecutor or the whole project team. The challenge may range from the need to finish a task early to the need to meet an expanded scope without a corresponding expansion of the project budget. The project leader as challenger presents the persecutor (or team) with a given scenario and asks, “How will we do this?” or “How will we accomplish this goal with these constraints?” The challenger's approach is the “antidote to the persecutor” (Emerald, 2010, p. 151). The roles of creator, coach, and challenger focus on “we” instead of “me.”

Authenticity and the Project Leader

It may seem odd to mention the different roles you may have to play as a project leader and, then, state you need to be authentic. “Authenticity is vital to effective leadership” (Bywater, 2015, p. 2). No one will trust you if you are not authentic; if no one trusts you, you will have no one to lead; if you have no one to lead, you cannot be a project leader. So, what does it mean to be authentic in light of the various roles you might play as a project leader?

Authenticity comes through your style as a leader. Your style should be a true representation of yourself and consistently presented to everyone. Authentic project leaders seek feedback from their project sponsor and their project team, challenge themselves as well as their project team, and “face their failures as learning opportunities” (Emelo, 2015, p. 2) which allow them to lead by example. Even when you play different roles to pull someone out of the Drama Triangle or push someone to leverage their creativity, you must be consistent and truthful while appreciating the differences in the people on your project team; these differences are what make them valuable to you in your pursuit of a successful project.

Removing a Team Member

What does a project leader do when a team member does not respond to coaching, challenges, or a push to help create a successful project? These people do not accept responsibility for their own attitudes or their actions. Part of being an above the line project leader is removing obstacles to project success, and unfortunately, sometimes removing the obstacle means removing a person from the team. Attempts must be made to bring him or her above the line to be an effective team member; they were, after all, put on the team for a reason. If they don't respond or continually and quickly regress to the Drama Triangle, however, you must remove this person from the project team for the good of the project and other project team members.

Final Thoughts

“Knowing yourself and your team is a big advantage” (Berkun, 2010, p. 50) and provides a boost to your authenticity and credibility as the project leader. Knowing yourself pushes you to locate yourself and identify whether you are an above-the-line project leader.

Project leaders should only think, say, or act in ways that help you and your team move toward the successful completion of your project (Satterwhite, 2014, p. 9).

The challenge to all project leaders is to create the environment in which our project teams can thrive to drive to project success.

Berkun, S. (2010). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc.

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Dethmer, J., Chapman, D., & Klemp, K. W. (2014). The 15 commitments of conscious leadership: A new paradign for sustainable success. Middletown, DE: KaleyWarnerKlemp.

De Wilde, M. (2015, May 8). The drama triangle: Identifying and defusing psychological games in companies. Retrieved from

Emelo, R. (2015, May 8). Four ways to build trust. Retrieved from

Emerald, D. (2010). The power of TED. Bainbridge Island, WA: Polaris Publishing.

Karpman, S. B. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 26(7), 39—43.

Leadership Development Coaching. (2015, April 29). Working with team conflict: The drama triangle or Karpman triangle and the victim persecutor rescuer roles. Retreived from

Lewis, J. (2015, May 8). The Karpman triangle. Retrieved from

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Menzies, M. (2015, May 8). Transactional analysis: Getting off the drama triangle part 2. Retrieved from

Project Management Institute. (2015). Building high-performance project talent. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Reeves, K. (2015, May 8). Is your team one big drama triangle?. Retrieved from

Satterwhite, S. (2014, January 29). Leading from above the line. Retrieved from

Scheid, J. (2015, May 8). Use the Karpman drama triangle to handle team conflict. Retrieved from

Stanford Group. (2014, June5). 2009 CHAOS study, Retrieved from

Sumner, S. (2006). Leadership above the line. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Wilson, S. L. (2015, February 19). Conscious leadership: A leadership framework at GHS. Presented at PMI Palmetto Chapter meeting.

© 2015, Thomas M. Rogers
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida USA



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