Have you ever felt like you were pulled into the role of a third-party to a conflict you had no intention of joining? The phenomenon is called triangulation and happens regularly in most of our lives. Triangulation can take a couple of different forms. One person could be designated as the messenger between two others or designated as the communicator between the other two (the go-between). Or, a form of “splitting” takes place, with one person (person A) playing the third person (person C) against the family member or coworker (person B) that they are upset with. This is playing two people against each other and the person doing the “splitting” usually assassinates both characters in the process.
Triangulation in the workplace is an unproductive behavior that chips away at the culture. It can be indirect and subtle, therefore, difficult to manage. And, if you are the triangulator, it’s worse, because you are largely unaware. If you were raised or work without awareness in such an environment you may not know any differently and continue perpetuating unintentionally.
The best place to combat this behavior is at home. By recognizing, not tolerating and ultimately educating on such behaviors, we can send better prepared workers to recognize occurrences of triangulation and combat them at the root.
Here are some signs it is happening in your household:
- Two stories: Kids regularly tell mom one thing and dad another, and reactions are based solely on the child communication without checking with the other parent. The child quickly learns they control the environment and raises the levels as their cognitive abilities grow.
- Two styles: If one parent is strict and the other is lenient, the lenient parent might over compensate for the behavior of the stricter parent. The child gravitates to the easier parent and creates the image of the “bad guy”.
- Conflict or divorce: These are situations ripe with triangulation possibilities. If there is conflict under one roof, the child feels the strain to pick sides. Worse, parents start to communicate their partner frustrations and splitting occurs. In divorce household, these problems can be magnified.
- Blended families: Now introduce even more parents (people) into the mix and the complexity grows.
From all the scenarios above, imagine them in the workplace. It isn’t too hard to do. Ideas to avoid or reset triangulatory behaviors are:
- Explain: Some degree of conflict is normal and expected. Explain this and teach how to address the upsetting situation or words directly with the person in conflict. Using a third-party is not an option.
- Don’t interject: If it is between siblings, let some of the little conflicts get resolved by themselves. Teach that tattling and complaining does not fix the problem and don’t reinforce that by listening to endless chatter about another child. Tell the child to explain the problem, offer solutions to resolve and move on.
- Bite your tongue: Easier said than done. If a manager talks to employees about other employees, triangulation will be seen as acceptable and part of the culture. The same is true at home. Don’t let yourself get pulled into the triangle and rise to the occasion. The occasions will be presented and you will be tested.
- Don’t be a third corner (of the triangle): The best way to cut off the behavior is to not participate in the behavior. Don’t feed the problem. As hard as it is to not engage, don’t.