While triangulation works great on TV crime shows to locate people via their cell phone, it can be dangerous in the workplace. Any three-sided relationship can devolve into a two-against-one formula. When professional mediators or facilitators are involved, however, a balanced triangulation can break logjams because it gives unhappy people a safe environment to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.
When a co-worker does something scandalous, you might not want to talk about it directly to him for fear of appearing nosy or judgmental. So, it’s tempting to turn to triangulation – you talk to another colleague about the event to glean additional juicy details or to spread the story. This type of third-party communication destroys team relationships by creating an “us-against-him” atmosphere by undermining trust. After all, if you say stuff like this about Sam, your colleagues will wonder what you say about them behind their backs.
Pre-Judging the Boss
You’ve just learned that you're getting a new boss. Of course you want to find out everything you can about her before she arrives. Others tell you she is really hard on her subordinates. You and your cohorts might even start looking around for jobs in other parts of the company. If fall into this trap, you've created a triangle even before she moves in. And, if you decide it won’t work, you’ll make your own predictions come true. There may be more to the story. Maybe the new boss has high standards because she wants her subordinates to succeed. If you wait until she arrives and form your own opinion, you might be pleasantly surprised.
The Weak Team Member
Almost every team has a person whose skill set is weaker than the others'. It’s easy to complain to third parties about this “weak link,” and maybe you even think it’s kind not to voice criticism directly to the person in question. Nothing could be further from the truth. Weak performers need honest, but kind feedback. Try talking directly to the person who is struggling. Ask him how he’s doing with his portion of the project and offer your help. You might become an instant mentor. Your project will benefit from it and your own angst will decrease immensely.
Assistance from a Facilitator
If you’re a boss and you have difficulty getting input from your subordinates, it’s possible that they believe – perhaps wrongly – that you don't want their input. Or maybe they don’t want to hurt your feelings with negative feedback. One way out of this “Land of Silence” is to bring in a facilitator from your human resources department to talk to your employees individually and bring aggregated feedback to you, which gives them the reassurance of anonymity. This triangle, however, is only temporary. The facilitator’s role is to bridge the gap between you and your subordinates, and then bow out once you have direct, productive communication with your staff.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.