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Published:January 14th, 2008 11:35 EST
Triangulation: When Work Culture Saps Productivity

Triangulation: When Work Culture Saps Productivity

By Gilmore Crosby, MSW (Mentor/Columnist)

Gilmore Crosby, President, Crosby & Associates

At Crosby & Associates we think of culture in terms that can be readily understood and influenced by people at every level of an organization. Simply put, culture is a mix of the dominant behaviors and beliefs prevalent in an organization. This issue focuses on triangulation, a preventable pattern of beliefs and behaviors which subtly erode morale and productivity.

Triangulation occurs when two (or more) parties commiserate together about a third party, rather than working on their issues directly with the third party. It is a dysfunctional (yet common) approach to coping with conflict. Therefore, before continuing our discussion of triangulation, it’s important to explore the culture of most organizations when it comes to conflict.

Without realizing the roots of their beliefs, most people think about conflict in Newtonian and Freudian terms. Newtonian science explained things by breaking them down into discreet parts, independent of the whole, while Freudian thinking introduced the idea of personality. In today’s world people tend to explain conflict in terms of “personality clashes,” and to address persistent conflict by moving people (or swapping out the parts). If you have ever concluded that “the problem” was someone’s personality, you were thinking in Freudian and Newtonian terms. These two perspectives fit together nicely, and are widely accepted, which seems to add to their validity. But while both paradigms have merit, they also have serious limitations. They are non-systemic. The forest is missed for the trees, and criticism of individuals becomes a tunnel vision, with consequences for the organization and the people within it.

In contrast, a systemic thinker seeks to understand how their own behavior is influencing others, and visa versa. Rather than focusing on the other as separate and essentially unchangeable, one focuses on the relationship between “the parts,” looks for patterns and looks for ways to influence the system by changing their own behavior. This is an essential task, from our perspective, of leadership.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that systems thinking discounts individual accountability. Au contraire! A system is made up of individuals, and change begins with you. Leadership requires clear vision and expectations and the courage to hold people accountable. Systems thinking clarifies individual responsibility, but shifts away from blaming based on personality.

The damage done by triangulation (a concept borrowed from family systems therapy) provides a practical reason to think systemically. Triangulation unchecked is a blame- based pattern that touches every corner of a system.

We form a “triangle” with our attention whenever we focus together on anything other than our relationship with the person (or persons) we’re with. We focus on topics and things that we share a common interest in, such as sports; or, we focus on a work topic (the equipment, the plan, etc). Whether we like or dislike the object of focus, it can be a bonding experience as well as a practical necessity to focus on things together.

So how is that a problem? Nothing is more stable than a triangle, and the pattern of blame and avoidance can be as strong as cement. Triangulation is the root of the classic “us and them” culture, with groups bonding together in opposition to “them” (management versus labor, maintenance versus production, the plant versus corporate, etc.). Blame and defensiveness are fueled in a culture of triangulation, and dependence on other groups is seen as an irritant rather than a necessity to be embraced and improved upon. The pattern becomes an excuse and a crutch, and productivity suffers.

As systems thinker Edwin Friedman puts it, “the basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will ‘triangle in’ or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another.”  When people bond by complaining about other groups, they distance themselves further from the other groups. And as they focus their blame on “them,” their ability to see their own internal issues erodes.

These are difficult patterns to break, because people have a strong urge to identify with their own group. In other words, triangulation is a core reason it’s so hard to break down silos in organizations.

To address triangulation, the old paradigm of personality clashes is inadequate. The problem isn’t that everyone in their respective silos has a “defensive personality,” although when you deal with the individuals, it may seem that way. The problem is systemic: triangulation invites blame, defensiveness and turf wars.

A groundbreaking study by family systems therapist, Salvador Minuchin, illustrates the way that triangulation operates as a system. Asthma attacks in children were traced to moments of conflict between the child’s parents. When they shifted their focus to the child's attack, the parent’s conflict ebbed, thus subtly rewarding the child. Minuchin broke the triangle and decreased the attacks by helping the parents work out their issues with each other.

This does not mean that all asthma is rooted in triangulation. But it is a striking example of a system’s emotional influence on behavior. In Minuchin’s study, as the parents learned to deal with each other more productively, the asthma attacks decreased. This is strange but true.

Silos, groups, locations, etc. require a similar approach. It is human nature to bond through “us and them” thinking. To gain productivity across boundaries, leaders must encourage direct communication, make sure people have the necessary skills and hold them to results.

Triangulation also impairs immediate work relations, even within groups, in a manner that is so common that when my colleagues and I point it out, almost everyone immediately understands. Person A has tension with Person B; Person A complains to someone else (whom we shall refer to as Person C) about Person B, instead of talking to Person B directly. People commonly label this as gossip (except when they are the one doing it). The key variable here is that person A is avoiding being direct with Person B.

Ironically, Person C often believes they are helping by “being a good listener.” Unfortunately, Person C may actually be reinforcing the problem by providing enough of a relief valve to Person A that they feel less compelled to deal with B directly. Even worse, they may reinforce A’s beliefs about B by joining in the gossip, which often includes something like this, “yeah, you can’t talk to B.” Such indirectness turns simple conversations about work into major dramas, with many people putting great effort into avoidance. Encouraging skillful directness about work issues is a vital leadership task.

When you’re person A, breaking up patterns of triangulation is relatively simple. All you have to do is notice that you’re doing it (complaining about a person or group to a sympathetic ear), stop yourself and work on your relationships directly with person B. If you chose to let off steam to a third person (Person C), do so without tearing down Person B, and with the intent of understanding your own reactions and gathering yourself to talk directly with B.

When you are Person C (Person A is gossiping to you about Person B), you can avoid reinforcing the triangle, and help Person A take responsibility for their own relationships, by applying the following steps:

Let them vent enough to begin calming down, and actively listen while being mindful not to join in or in anyway tear down Person B. Paraphrase to make sure you really understand, and to help them get clearer. Work with them to put feedback into non-inflammatory terms (specifics, such as “I think I could be making this decision” rather than judgments, such as “you’re over-controlling.”) Encourage them to explore and own their own part in whatever isn’t working between them and B.

When they are able to be specific and less blaming, encourage them to be direct with B. If you have the positional authority to expect them to be direct, do so, and then support them in their efforts. If not, encourage directness, and then respect their decision making in the matter. It is, of course, their risk, although the fears that justify avoidance usually prove to be overblown. Don’t let yourself get sucked in, over and over again, if A is unwilling to work directly on their relationship with B.

The bottom line is: encourage directness in yourself and in others. Most conflicts are misunderstandings, not personality clashes, and are reinforced by triangulation. With courage, ownership and active listening, you can clear them up. So can the people around you. But this will happen only if you talk to each other. Deal with people directly, encourage them to deal with you, and encourage others to deal with each other. It won’t always go smoothly, but it beats the hell out of avoidance and gossip.

Secrets are more devastating to organizations than truth.

Robert P. Crosby

Fear is the mind killer.

Frank Herbert
Most conflict at work is not interpersonal. It is inevitable that individuals will have so-called interpersonal conflicts when there is poor sponsorship, unclear roles and responsibilities, confused authority and decision making. However, these resulting conflicts cannot be resolved interpersonally because the root cause lies elsewhere. Not understanding this, most people relieve their stress by gossiping. Talking about someone instead of to someone is so familiar that it seems part of the natural order of things — ”the way it is.” 

Robert P. Crosby

We can only change a relationship to which we belong. Therefore, the way to bring change to the relationship of two others (and no one said it is easy) is to try to maintain a well defined relationship with each…(and not take) responsibility for their relationship with one another.

Edwin Friedman