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Triangulation in the workplace:

Why we do it and how to avoid It

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December 16, 2022

“Sharon agrees with me that Wanda is a terrible leader.” 

I waited for Emily to say more, but that was the summation of her unflattering account of Wanda, the customer service supervisor to whom she, and apparently Sharon, reported.

Emily was taking part in the age-old dysfunction of workplace triangulation. Rather than talking to Wanda directed about her concerns or frustrations, she chose to share them with a third party, in this case Sharon. 

Why We Choose Triangulation

Psychologically speaking, triangulation is a form of manipulation. It involves the use of indirect communication, usually behind someone’s back, to comfort and protect our own egos. For example, Emily may have feared that she was the only person struggling with Wanda’s leadership style. So, rather than addressing her concerns with Wanda directly, which could have resulted in Wanda pointing out some growth opportunities for Emily, Emily chose to complain about Wanda to Sharon. Her intent may have been unconscious, as our attempts to protect our egos often are, but it was to lessen her anxiety about her relationship with Wanda by building a sense of relational security with Sharon. 

The “good” news? Emily created an illusion of a closer relationship with Sharon by outlining a shared narrative of two coworkers suffering together under the same terrible leader. Also, Emily avoided the need to muster the courage necessary to have an adult conversation about her concerns or frustrations with Wanda directly.

The bad news? The toxic part of triangulation is that Emily went about building a closer relationship with Sharon at Wanda’s expense. Unfortunately, Emily’s choice to involve Sharon created an environment ripe for ongoing complaining, growing scrutiny of Wanda, and the likely deterioration of Sharon’s relationship with Wanda. Plus, Wanda remains unaware of Emily’s concerns about her leadership style and unable to address them.

How to Prevent Triangulation

Triangulation is a passive-aggressive tactic of manipulation used by people who are, in general, selfish and/or ignorant about the impact of their behaviors in the workplace. At its core, triangulation pits people against one another and has the effect of dividing people. The resulting dysfunction undermines trust, teamwork, professional development, productivity, job satisfaction, and retention.

It’s our responsibility to understand the impact of our behaviors on others and to learn to offer feedback to people directly. The ability to constructively discuss our ideas, concerns, and frustrations with assertion and tact is paramount to our professional success and our contributions to a healthy workplace dynamic.

In addition to making sure that we are not the source of triangulation, we can help to stop it in its tracks. For example, after Emily’s recount of Wanda’s leadership flaws, I revealed my unwillingness to enter the triangle with Emily by asking her, “What did Wanda say when you shared your concerns with her?”

That simple question signaled to Emily that I was listening to her concerns as her story rather than succumbing to her not-so-subtle attempt to influence my opinion of Wanda. I did not dig for more dirt nor did I play along by offering my own unflattering opinions about Wanda. 

My question also indicated to Emily that I believed in her ability to talk with Wanda directly and, in fact, assumed that she had already done so. If she had not yet spoken to Wanda directly, then my question offered Emily an invitation to reconsider her current indirect strategy for dealing with her concerns about Wanda and to possibly employ a more direct, thoughtful strategy.
As we go forward, the best ways for us to prevent triangulation in the workplace are to talk to people, not about people, and to kindly remind our friends and coworkers to do the same.
Terri Jacke is the founder and President of Inspired Training Institute, Inc., an executive coaching and organizational development firm, and author of Is This a Lousy Job or Is It Me?: A Real-Life Guide for Achieving Success at Work.

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