Triangulation is the discharge of relational discomfort/disruption/energy with one person through conversation with someone else.
A leader I work with has an open-door policy in their organization. The leader is open to other people’s opinions of their or the staff’s actions. People in the organization take advantage of this policy. People feel safe with the leader. The leader works hard to see people’s perspectives.
During these conversations with the staff, the leader listens and paraphrases – repeats back what they had heard. Shares their understanding of the issue. Offers a resolution – which is sometimes just a listening ear. People leave the office feeling heard and cared for.
Being open to feedback was a tough practice for the leader. It was uncomfortable to hear these opinions. They felt defensive but knew to hold back this response and keep listening. They worked hard to create a healthy workplace. It hurt to hear what was wrong, but it was essential to their overall goal. When the conversations ended, they had a lot of unsaid responses and hidden discomfort.
To release these thoughts and feelings, they talked to a peer in confidence about others. The peer would listen and validate the leader. Both would leave the conversation feeling connected. The peer felt like a confidant and friend. The leader felt seen for their value.
This arrangement felt safe. It allowed the leader to maintain a calm demeanor with staff and not disrupt the relationships. They avoided the conflict of different perspectives.
This practice had consequences. The peer felt superior to others because of their role as confidant to the leader. They had inside knowledge about others. This knowledge changed the way they saw people. This knowledge felt powerful. This power over others was felt by the staff.
Over time, the leader heard feedback that is was hard for the staff to connect with the peer. The staff felt talked down to by the peer. People started to alienate the peer in ways that created silos. Work became harder and people often kept their challenges close to them as they were uncertain of who to trust. The leader was able to maintain their image and power at the expense of the peer.
Through coaching, the leader realized they needed to stop discharging their relational discomfort with their peer. It clouded the peer’s opinion of others and eroded their reputation. It disrupted workflow and created silos. The leader needed a new solution to deal with their discomfort.
Identify – Triangulation
This story is about a common organizational challenge called triangulation. Triangulation is the discharge of relational discomfort/disruption/energy with one person through conversation with someone else.
Triangulation is a common, destructive, and often unconscious organizational strategy to manage the discomfort of conflict. It relieves interpersonal distress and eliminates the need for follow-up. This creates relief and connection for some and alienation and disconnection for others.
Triangulation is also called gossip. People are not informed they will be talked about. They are talked about behind their back. This “off-the-record” conversation negatively shapes the opinions of others. It increases factions and silos and creates and us and them relationship. It prevents work from being smoothly completed. It feels like but is not real connection. It decreases overt conflict and increases hiding and going around peoples back.
We triangulate in an organizational setting for a few reasons:
- It is a practice. It feels right, because it is what we were taught and have always done. We justify the practice by saying we are trying to work something out or share best practices.
- Conflict is hard and scary. We were never taught how have a constructive conversation about our differences.
- Time is short. We choose the quick fix of discharge over the long haul of conflict. We often feel so much better after we triangulate that we forget or choose not to circle back with the person who disrupted us.
Triangulation happens in all systems. It keeps problems under the surface where they get more complex. It eventually entangles the entire organization in a web of mistrust and misunderstanding that is hard but not impossible to unravel. It requires some serious communication skill building to navigate this complex challenge.
Triangulation can be an effective conversational strategy to see a situation from multiple perspectives. Effective triangulation is overt and explicit. People agree to others sharing their opinion to forward the issue. As a group, a team creates guidelines for these conversations that everyone follows. Individuals are taught how to engage and are supported in conflict. People have permission to disagree with others. People do not hold grudges.
Notice – Triangulation
To notice triangulation in your organization, start with yourself. Get curious about you, your filters, and your patterns in relationship. Look at your family system. Notice how they deal with conflict or disruptive relationships. This is likely your go to pattern as well.
Notice who challenges you. Name what bothers you about them. When you are bothered by someone in a way that you cannot resolve, what do you do?
If you find yourself in conversation with another person about someone else, notice if you feel relieved about the situation when you are done talking. Notice if you are uncomfortable in the conversation. What creates the discomfort?
Notice who are your go to people. Usually, they are people who agree with you. This feeds your perspective and keeps you safe.
Apply skills – Triangulation
Most of us triangulate. If you find yourself in conversation with another person about someone else, name it. “I am triangulating.” This builds accountability and trust. People recognize you as self-aware. Self-awareness – understanding that you have in impact on the system – helps people feel safe with you. When people feel safe, they do their best work.
Most people do not know they triangulate. If someone else comes to you to talk about another, set a boundary in the conversation. Share with them, “Ah, this is triangulation. I am happy to listen. Here are my criteria: you take accountability for your part, speak about you and your issues – not the other person, and go talk to this person about this issue when we are done.” You may find people either come to you more or they never return.
Triangulation is helpful if you intend to get perspective and then close the loop. Find a person you trust will be honest with you and not gossip about the other. Ask them to be an objective listener. Tell them, “I am having a problem with …. Can you listen to me so I can sort out my feelings and needs?” Tell them how to listen, “Help me take accountability for my role in this situation. When I start speaking about the other person, redirect me back to how I feel and what I need. Here is how to hold me accountable to have the conversation.” Name by when you will close the loop and report back to them.
To engage in healthy triangulation – like in the above research example – all people are aware of and agree to the practice for the purpose of learning. All create and explicitly follow predetermined guidelines. There is a structure to the conversations. You reflect and are accountable for your contribution to the problem. You share your challenges, not the faults of the other. You do not blame the other. You are specific in your ask of the listener. And, you close the loop – you go back to the person with whom you are troubled by and use what you gained through triangulating to resolve or evolve the issue.
To learn more, invite perspective. This is our jam. If you want to advance as a leader, get ahead of triangulation and learn how to have productive conflict.