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I'm handing over the writing reins today to a new friend I made through this blog. Tom Patterson and I have had some pretty interesting conversations about life, and more in particular, life at work. As a leadership coach, Tom works to provide insight and creative solutions for his clients, and it would behoove you to listen to—and put into practice—what he has to say. Take it away, Tom!
Do you remember what it was like in junior high? (Sorry if that question induced any flashbacks!) “Go ask that girl if she likes me,” to “Leave my little sister alone, or I’ll kick your butt!” And sometimes even parents got into the act with teachers: "What do you mean giving my daughter a B-minus on her science project? I worked all night on that thing!"
In each of these situations, a third party is taking responsibility for someone else’s stuff. But hey…it’s junior high.
If you've spent any time in a workplace with three or more persons, you already know that not everything gets left back at junior high. You know firsthand how a person can either take responsibility for someone else’s issues, or manipulate boundary-less people into doing so. This is called “triangulation,” and it’s one of the surest ways to make the workplace a miserable and mistrusting space.
Here’s how triangulation typically works: I have an issue with a coworker; it’s my issue, and mine alone (even if others may share the same perspective). However, talking with them directly about my concern is way too scary, so I share my concern with my manager. Why? Because whether I can admit it to myself or not, I hope she will take up my issue, make it her own, and deal with my nemesis for me.
At this point, my manager has a choice to make. Either she can say to me, “Hmmm…sounds like you feel strongly about this person. What are you going to do about it?” Or “Wow. What did they say when you shared your concerns with them?” (which, of course, I didn't). Or by contrast, she can say, “Okay…I’ll talk to them and see what I can do,” or she can just listen, absorb it, and privately suffer angst over what to do.
If my manager chooses one of the latter two approaches, she has taken responsibility for my issues. I've successfully “triangulated” her, but only because she has willingly become the third corner of the triangle. My manager has decided to have the difficult conversation that was mine to have. I get to kick back, sip my umbrella drink, watch the fallout, and say, “My work here is done.” It’s all very junior high, and, unfortunately, is by far the norm, rather than the exception.
Here’s the thing about person-to-person relationships:They are notoriously unstable, and pretty much always involve a third party—sometimes human, sometimes not. A human relationship is like a two-legged stool that is constantly looking for that stabilizing third leg (it could be an object such as a cup of coffee, a beer, a game on TV, the open road ahead as two people are driving), or talking about another person (“Did you hear about Wendy’s latest stunt?”). The objects—or conversational subjects—act as the third leg that lowers the anxiety of being too face-to-face with each other. This isn't always a bad thing (though in the case of gossip it most certainly is).
Triangulation becomes especially toxic when either a) Two or more people try to reduce their own anxiety by focusing the energy of their fears onto a third party or group (this is called “scapegoating”), or b) One person thinks of himself or herself as a mediator or peace-maker and tries to take responsibility for resolving tension between two or more parties. In reality, these folks just don’t like pain or discomfort in themselves or others, and do whatever they can to make it go away.
As long as managers, HR, or coworkers willingly take responsibility for other peoples’ issues, no one grows, and the toxicity and distrust deepen. (Talk about sowing seeds for a crabby workplace!) Responsibility lies at two levels here: a) on the part of the person who has an issue with someone else (it is their responsibility to own it, deal with it, and live with the consequences); and b) on the part of a third party whom others try to rope in (it is their responsibility to suck it up and refuse to be that third corner of the triangle).
(There are times when a third party needs to be brought in, but this post is not about those times.)
The moral here? The rules of maturity and adulthood don’t get suspended in the workplace, just because we can find someone who will take responsibility for our issues for us.
Triangulation is the path of least resistance. To borrow the title of a Jim Hightower book: Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow.
Tom Patterson finds his coaching thrills by helping leaders navigate the relational challenges of leadership. Visit him at Sound Coaching.
This article could not be better timed for me. I have a "crucial conversation" meeting with a group of triangulators (quadrangulators? quindrangulators?) at noon today and have printed this off to share with the group. I may even print it off in color, make many copies and wallpaper the staff bathroom! Thanks, Crabby (oh, and you, too, Tom)!
Glad to hear it was helpful! I'm also grateful for Crabby's invitation for me to do a guest post. I hope your "crucial conversation" went exceptionally well, too!
E-mail sent to ask Crabby to have a quiet word with you about your article ...
(Only joking Tom, interesting stuff)
@grumpy engineer: now THAT was funny!