Triangulation is defined by psychiatrist Murray Bowen as ‘a breakdown in communication between two or more people resulting in one or several of those people attempting to resolve/discuss the issues outside the confines of the parties to the communication’.
For example, suppose you and I are on a team together and we’re not getting along. Instead of speaking directly to you, I complain about you to another team member in the secret hope that they might talk to you about your behaviour for me and resolve our conflict. This allows me to vent, feel better and shift the problem to someone else, while avoiding any direct conflict or recognition that I might be the one who needs to change my behaviour.
All too often the other team member will try to resolve my issue by speaking with you, but this inevitably backfires. In fact, triangulation creates more conflict, distrust and dysfunction.
The three roles of triangulation
Triangulation involves three parties: the perpetrator, the victim and the helper. For simplicity, let’s call them Peter the Perpetrator, Violet the Victim and Harry the Helper. Peter the Perpetrator is doing something that Violet the Victim doesn’t like, and she enlists Harry the Helper to deal with Peter. Harry closes the triangle by talking to Peter about the issues raised by Violet.
This can create all kinds of harmful dynamics that significantly impact psychological safety. One or both (usually both) of the victim and the perpetrator haven’t developed the necessary distress tolerance, values commitment or self-regulating awareness to speak to each other from a vertical growth perspective, so the helper is brought in. But when Harry approaches Peter, Peter is upset at Harry, and now Peter feels like the victim. ‘Why am I the one being blamed, Harry? You and Violet have been talking behind my back.’
Suddenly Harry the Helper has become Harry the Perpetrator. Now the original victim, Violet, is confronted by Peter, the original perpetrator (now the victim), and suddenly Violet the Victim becomes the helper. ‘Well, I didn’t say it like that to Harry, and I didn’t mean that. I’m actually okay with how you behaved. I’m surprised Harry said that.’ Violet is panicked because she still wants to image manage and avoid uncomfortable conflict and she says and does what is necessary to ensure things are smoothed over.
Of course, there are many nuances and variations to this process, from simple gossiping to entire departments or organisations lost in complex avoidances, politics and sideways conversations.
A typical triangulation scenario
How to stop triangulation
The first and most obvious way to stop triangulation is not to engage with it when it’s brought to you. For example, when someone comes to you and complains about another team member, or about someone in the broader organisation, you must stop it there and not take that complaint to the other person or to anyone else. You can empathise with the person who brought the complaint to you, and coach him or her to have a direct conversation.
If that fails, as a team leader your job is to offer mediation. You might say, ‘Let’s all sit down together and I’ll make sure you guys really hear each other, while also both taking accountability for your behaviour.’
In these cases, leaders must be sensitive and attuned. Supporting team members to resolve their own issues is the ideal step, but it’s not always the best step. On one of the teams we worked with, one team member, Jack, had an extraordinary ability to manipulate the truth and freeze out other team members from important projects. Tom, one of those team members being frozen out, had many direct conversations with Jack about his behaviour, and over and over was promised change, which never came.
Tom then escalated to his and Jack’s boss. Their boss chose to advise Tom that given Tom and Jack were both in senior roles they should sort it out themselves, so he sent Tom back to deal with Jack directly. Nothing changed. Tom’s boss did not triangulate, but he also failed to address Jack’s flagrant values violations. He really should have taken the second option we suggested, which was to mediate a conversation between Tom and Jack. He also should have ensured they made some mindful agreements about next steps. And finally, he should have held them both accountable for those agreements. This would have supported Jack’s growth and values alignment in the team, as well as increasing engagement and safety in the team.
Over our many years of working with leaders and organisations, we’ve never encountered a team that wasn’t experiencing some degree of triangulation. If you want a values-aligned, vertical growth, psychologically safe culture, this dynamic has to be addressed.