I’ve written recently about the human tendency to form social triangles, and how this habit can cause communication problems in the workplace.
I often find that there is low awareness of the triangles people are forming in the workplace. Why are they such a sneaky and seductive form? Below I look at three reasons for the triangle’s workplace appeal.
1. They are a way to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Max is working on a team with Kathy and Jen. If Max doesn’t like how Kathy is acting, and chooses not to talk to her about it directly, he may instead approach Jen to complain about Kathy’s behavior. It’s a classic triangle. It could be a healthy move if Max is talking to Jen only to get clear about how to handle the problem more directly, although it would probably be wiser for Max to seek clarity outside the team. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t really seeking clarity in that situation. We are talking to a third person because we would rather not tackle the problem directly. If possible, we’d love to never have to talk to Kathy about her annoying emails, or the fact that she’s slacking off on the current project. Approaching this third party is a way to feel we are moving forward with this problem we know must be addressed. We may even hope that this third party—especially if it’s our boss—will form the third side of the triangle, and fix the problem for us.
2. They feel powerful and/or comforting. If we are the Jen in the triangle—that is, the one who is being approached for help—it may feel good to be confided in and asked for help. Max and Jen could form an alliance, bonding over a secret grievance. Or, if Jen decides to go talk to Kathy on behalf of Max, she may feel a sense of power.
3. They alleviate tension. Direct conversations can threaten our identity—what if that person doesn’t think I’m nice anymore, or tells me I’m mistaken, and I have to question my beliefs about myself? Even if you’re someone who can handle being direct, you may feel unprepared to manage the feelings of the other person once you tell them how you are feeling. All this wondering and worrying (not to mention the problem behavior itself) builds stress and tension. Forming a triangle with a third person to talk about the problem lets off steam.
Unfortunately, when we don’t address the problem, the pressure builds back up again. Tackle the triangle, but also show yourself some compassion. Triangles are seductive, and easy for almost anyone to fall into.