Solving Workplace Triangles

We often group together in threes. Triangles are stable geometric forms, (at least when they aren’t resting on a point), and are such a natural part of life that few people notice when they are in one. We’ve all heard of “love triangles,” but we also form non-romantic triangles with our families, with friends, and at work. For example, a boss might have three employees working together on a team, or two employees who are in conflict, and turn to the boss for help.

Since triangles form naturally, leaders must eventually learn how to manage them to create a healthy, productive work environment.

Here’s a typical triangle work scenario:  

Liam thinks his co-worker Carrie is being too harsh on him at team meetings.

Liam wants Carrie to change, but feels she won’t listen. He goes to his boss Rachel to complain.

His boss has a talk with Carrie on his behalf.

What’s wrong with this arrangement?

Most people are most comfortable scuttling sideways away from conflict like a threatened crab.

But allowing triangles to form usually creates new, bigger problems. Liam is disempowered by not having the conversation and stating his truth. For her part, Carrie trusts Liam less than before. Intentionally or not, she is more likely than ever to clash with him again in the future, or perhaps to go to someone else at work to vent her feelings, forming yet another triangle. Meanwhile, the boss is taking time away from other tasks to step into the triangle, and setting a precedent for future conflicts.

The solution?

It depends on the problem. If this is a serious workplace issue, (harassment, for instance), a triangle is required. But for many other conflicts, it is usually most healthy to listen to the employee, and then point them back towards the other person in the conflict, to air their feelings directly. If employees lack the skills to resolve the situation, it might help to bring them together to begin the conversation.

If you are in a triangle, think hard before asking others to intervene on your behalf. Taking charge of the situation by being direct, even if it’s uncomfortable in the moment, will help clear the air, and will also increase your confidence.

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