We recently worked with “Brad,” an executive who didn’t know what to do about the maddening relationship he was having with a “toxic” peer.  During meetings, this peer would never raise an objection to the executive’s ideas.  But afterwards, he would trot over to their mutual boss to air his grievances.

Within hours, Brad’s boss would call him into her office and give him the third degree about his ideas.  She had never expressed any concerns beforehand.  It was obvious to Brad that the objections were really coming from his toxic peer, who had earned quite a reputation for undermining Brad’s colleagues with the same approach.

What is Triangulation?

We’ve all experienced this at some point: Instead of directly expressing an opposing view or objection to something you said or did, someone has gone to a third party to complain about you.  Not only is this infuriating, it can create toxic dynamics in a team by rewarding passive-aggressive behavior. It also can be quite awkward when someone comes to you to complain about someone else when you know they have not discussed their concerns with the other person.                

This phenomenon is often called triangulation because the “complainer” has gone to a third party and not directly to the “object” or “victim” of their concern.  It is a passive-aggressive behavior because the complainer never deals directly with you and tries to indirectly undermine you. 

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Moving Beyond Triangulation: Are You Hindering or Helping?

So, what can you do?   Basically, there are three general responses to tackle this behavior, some more effective than others:

  • Colluding
  • Connecting
  • Coaching

1. Colluding

One option is to complain to others about the toxic peer’s behavior.  In fact, that’s a common response to the frustration this generates.  “Would you believe what this guy did?” is a common reaction of outrage over being the victim of triangulation.

The problem with this response is that it repeats the same passion-aggressive behavior rather than confronting it directly, and perpetuates the same toxic culture. Similarly, if someone comes to you to complain about someone else, if you “carry” that message to others, then you are an enabling that passive-aggressive behavior.

Whether you’re the victim or the carrier in these examples, you’re colluding with the toxic colleague if you don’t stop the vicious cycle of passive-aggressive behavior by opting for the more constructive approaches below.

2. Connecting

The Connecting approaching is all about eliminating the middleman; removing the third party from the equation to talk directly to the complainer.

If you are the victim of the triangle, consider these approaches to create a more constructive dialog.

  1. Let the third party know that you’ll take it from here and will be going to the complainer to get some direct feedback.
  1. Suggest to the third party that if this happens again, you’d like them to tell the complainer you will not get in the middle and that the complainer should talk directly to you.
  1. Ask the third party, “What did they say when you suggested they talk to me directly to me?” If the third party didn’t try to do this, it should help them realize that this would have been the right thing to do.  If they did suggest this to no avail, probe further to understand more about what’s really going on.  The complainer may have trouble with difficult conversations or is intimidated by you, for example.  Depending on the circumstances, you may want to ask the third party if they would be willing to act as a coach to the two of you as described in the section on coaching

If you are the third party in this triangle, here are some ways to extract yourself from the uncomfortable middle and connect the complainer directly with the source of their complaints.

  1. Ask the complainer, “What did they say when you gave them that feedback?” If they say they have not talked to source of their complaint, then recommend they do so.
  1. Ask the complainer if they are just venting or if they expect you to do something. If they are just venting, you should still encourage them to talk directly to the source.

More often than not, posing the question this way prompts the complainer to pull back and think about what they are doing.  It also helps to communicate the fact that you will not collude with this passive-aggressive behavior, and the complainer moves on.

If they say they are not just venting but want you to help them do something, there are several options that involve some degree of coaching.

3. Coaching

If you’re the third party and someone complains to you about someone else, there are times when the “coaching” hat may be more effective.  Let’s say the complainer is one of your direct reports who has an issue with another of your direct reports.  You could say that this is not your problem and let the two of them communicate directly.  But there are risks to that approach:

  • The resulting conversation could generate more heat than light, escalating rather than resolving the issue.
  • The complainer could disregard your suggestion to go directly to the person and collude with someone else, spreading the passive-aggressive culture in your team.
  • You may miss a developmental opportunity for the complainer, the victim, and yourself, as great leaders and teams find ways to make sensitive issues discussable and resolve conflicts constructively.

If the coaching approach is used, here are some keys in leveraging the use of an objective facilitator:

  • Begin by stating why you have brought them together, including:
    • You’ve learned that Person A has some constructive feedback for Person B and that you are here to facilitate a constructive discussion.
    • The goal is not to blame anyone but to gain some insight into how, in the future, they can give each other constructive feedback in a direct and timely manner.
  • Set some ground rules, including:
    • The feedback should avoid evaluative statements and focus on descriptions of the other person’s behavior. For example, “Ellen, you really don’t care about the team” is an evaluative statement and will make the person defensive.  On the other hand, saying “Ellen, when you arrive ten minutes late to our team meetings, it holds everyone up and even makes some of us late to our next meeting” describes the specific behavior and its impact on others.
    • Each person should be curious as to why the other sees things the way they do. The goal is to understand the concerns behind the feedback and not to determine who is right and who is wrong.
    • The two people involved should talk to each other and not to the facilitator. After all, the goal is to get them to talk to each other and not a third party.

The conversation should end with agreement on specific actions and behaviors they will take to avoid triangulating in the future.

Lead by Tackling Triangulation Head-On

Circling back to our opening story about “Brad,” remember that he was upset because his boss came to him with a complaint from someone else.  We suggested that Brad adopt the connecting approach, recommending he say to his boss: “I’d appreciate it if next time this happens you tell the person to come directly to me. Rather than discussing this with you further, I’ll go to that person directly.  But if you feel the same way, let’s discuss this now.  Are you just speaking for someone else or do you also have the same feedback for me? If so, I really want to explore it with you.”

Triangulation can be extremely toxic and, unfortunately, very contagious.  It’s very easy to fall into the trap of just complaining about the complainers and not putting a stop to the dynamics—particularly if you’re in a culture that rewards this behavior.

You may or may not be able to eliminate triangulation from your culture.  But even if you can’t, you can take the high road while others take the low road.  At best, this can help you stand out as a leader; at worst, you can look yourself in the mirror and know you did the right thing.

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