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The Terrors of Triangulation

The Terrors of Triangulation

Recently it seems that every leader I talk to tells me some story about triangulation. They don’t call it that, necessarily, but that’s what they’re describing. Here’s what I’m hearing:

  • “One staff person came to me with a complaint about another, and I told her that she needed to go have that conversation with the person she was complaining about. She hasn’t done that yet, and now I need to follow up.”
  • “There’s a potential problem on the horizon that I want to talk to my CEO about, but all my peers are telling me, ‘don’t do it. It won’t do you any good.’”
  • “The staff under one of my direct reports were having trouble with him. I learned about it because some of the them went to one of my peers, and she told me. Now she has negative feelings about my direct report.”

As I said in my last newsletter, triangulation is a common dynamic in organizational and team systems. When there’s conflict between Person A and Person B, A talks to Person C (usually in a complaining, criticizing kind of way) instead of dealing directly with B. In other words, instead of having open, honest conversations with the person involved in the conflict, people triangulate by venting their feelings and stories with other people.

Triangulation is a pretty common human impulse – most of us want to avoid the discomfort of hard conversations – but it’s also a death knell for teams and organizations. Triangulation starts a whole cascade of events that undermine trust and team performance:

  • the people who get drawn into the conflict end up with a negative view of the person they heard complaints about
  • the person being complained about doesn’t get important feedback about how others are perceiving her
  • the source of the conflict never gets resolved, and so the cycle keeps repeating
  • bad feelings persist and people’s perceptions and beliefs about each other harden into “truth”
  • people stop being able to work well together because there’s so much baggage and unresolved conflict

This dynamic creates a lot of what a colleague of mine calls “underbrush.” Ultimately, when triangulation is an organizational habit, there’s so much underbrush that a relatively minor event or misunderstanding can become the lit match that sets off a conflagration, burning everything in sight.

So, what’s a leader to do? How can you cultivate a team environment where people talk to each other rather than about each other?

  1. First, be impeccable in your own conversations. No matter how frustrated you are with someone, never talk about him to someone else in the organization. Always talk directly to anybody you’ve got a problem with – or don’t talk at all.
  2. Refuse to tolerate people coming to you with complaints about somebody else on the team. Send them back to the other person to work it out, with the expectation that they do so within 24 hours and update you on the result. Some leaders will actually interrupt mid-complaint, call in the person being complained about, and support the conversation that needs to happen. (“Support” is the key word here – this can be done kindly, but firmly.)
  3. Focus team development on conflict resolution and communication skills. Support people in getting better at telling the truth skillfully enough that they can listen to each other.
  4. Get help if you need it. As the leader, you’re part of the dynamic, and it can sometimes be hard to see your own role clearly enough to spearhead changes. Find a good coach to support you and your team in breaking the triangulation habit.

Your turn: What are your stories of triangulation? How have you seen it play out in your organization or team? What have you done in response, and how has it worked? I’d love to hear your experience!

Photo courtesy of Tim Green, Flickr Creative Commons

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