Triangulation: Placing the Blame Three Ways: Tactical Options for Breaking Up Faulty Communication

Although some businesses have been able to benefit from their knowledge of the psychology of employee behavior, their understanding cannot be applied as a cure-all for any organizational problem that seems to stem from nonproductive behavior.  In fact, the actual cause of some personnel problems often becomes obscure if only the individual behavioral aspect is focused upon.  The more a manager understands and uses psychological techniques, the less likely he is to find the real reasons that cause unacceptable behavior.

Unproductive employee behavior is not always the result of an emotional problem.  It could very well be a symptom of an organizational one such as insufficient authority, unclear role definition, competing goals, or lack of information.  Because managers are more able or willing to identify, discuss, and confront personal problems, they tend to treat misbehavior as an individual problem rather than an organizational one.  Further, over-emphasis on individual problem identification sometimes decreases their managerial options and can lead to the recurrence of unproductive individual behavior.

Triangulation

A common behavioral pattern operative in certain organizational situations is triangulation–an unproductive relationship in which three people or groups are stuck in recurring series of undesirable behavioral patterns that may be symptomatic of broader issues.  Superficially, triangles appear to be dysfunctional communication triads which can be temporarily alleviated by traditional communication techniques.  Although this is sometimes so, triangles are more often caused by organizational problems that trigger symptomatic behavior by employees.

Many organizational problems seem to invite this pattern allowing superficial behavioral problems to grow and thus camouflage the real issues.  If the existence of triangulation can be detected and successfully addressed, managers may move on to resolving organizational problems rather than remaining cyclically trapped in behavioral issues.

Typically, managers see and react to behavioral problems, as in these situations.

Situation A:  Harry L., the production manager, was walking through the plant on a routine tour.  He was feeling pleased with how the plant was running, and then he noticed three workers smoking cigarettes behind some inventory.  Harry was furious.  He strode up to the workers, chastised them for not working, and sent them back to their workstations.  As they left, he went looking for his general foreman, George.  He was going to tell George this type of behavior had to stop, but he knew he had told George the same thing a thousand times before.

Situation B:  Joyce K. was the assistant department manager of room service.  She took a great deal of pride in her work and her department’s high quality service.  However, she was very frustrated with her night supervisor who usually was late and left many problems for her morning replacement.  She never complained to her supervisor about the night supervisor.  In fact, she simply came in early to take care of the problems in the morning.  Whenever her boss asked how the night shift was, Joyce said it was fine.

Situation C:  Richard B. was a highly successful lawyer who also was the managing partner of a large and successful firm.  He led his firm into new legal markets with precision and surety.  He felt he had the respect of his colleagues and peers which he credited to his open-door policy.  He always said anyone could walk into his office and discuss anything.  He was very surprised and upset one day when four of his senior partners told him he was totally inaccessible.  He fumed and told them they were wrong—all anyone had to do was schedule a time with his secretary.  Their response made him ponder.  His secretary had told them the was too busy.

Each of these situations can be initially interpreted as ones in which any of the involved members is engaged in nonproductive behavior.  In Situation A, the production manager, the foreman, and the workers were all involved in poor organizational behavior.  The production manager skipped the chain of command, the foreman was overly protecting his workers, and the workers were taking an unauthorized break in a work area.

The general manager, following traditional approaches, can temporarily correct the problem by reprimanding the foreman and the workers.  He can even ask the foreman why the workers continually take unauthorized breaks, but seldom will a manager explore the organizational causes of the individual behaviors.  The organizational problem in this case was poorly controlled schedules which led to intermittent delays in several assembly areas.

Situation B highlights a recurring problem of subordinates hiding problems and mistakes from their managers.  Again, the problem illustrates how everyone is involved in nonproductive behavior.  The night supervisor is not helpful when she denies having problems, nor is her manager when he refuses to see any signs of a cover-up.  Even if the manager discovers the problem, corrects his assistant manager’s cover-up, and corrects the night supervisor’s pattern of leaving problems for the next shift, the problems may well recur.  Because the department manager was evaluated and rewarded on how well the morning and evening shifts ran, the organizational pressures that create problems in the night shift have not been addressed.

Everyone in Situation C has made an erroneous assumption about the other members’ behavior.  The managing partner has assumed none of his partners had wished to speak to him, the secretary assumed that he was too busy, and the partners assumed he did not want to speak with them.  Again, the assumptions can and should be corrected, as a necessary first step, but the real problem—a lack of clarity about what the managing partner’s job was—cannot be solved unless the lawyers view the erroneous assumptions as symptoms of a broader problem.

The problem redefined

In situations such as these, everyone involved is stuck in an unwanted behavioral pattern and unable to see the organizational problems.  Frequently individuals can sense it and do not think it; they cannot articulate that there is a problem, let alone identify it.  Their inappropriate behavior is their way of pointing out the existence of a problem of which they are not consciously aware.  Often a manager can reveal this if he happens to know the problem and just mentions it to the individual.  Almost immediately, the individual will respond and acknowledge that must be what is bothering him.  Unfortunately, most supervisors and managers stop their inquiry at the individual level.

Why triangles?

Triangles are such common and recurring patterns of human interaction that they are seldom recognized as casual, destructive, and repetitive.  Most triangular involvement is not disruptive and is a perfectly legitimate response to a given situation.  For example, we all relay messages between two people.  Seldom is this behavior a game to avoid a more troubling situation although the message often is distorted accidentally.  However, participation in a non-disruptive triangle does condition individuals to participate in disruptive triangles.

Two other human vulnerabilities encourage the continuation of disruptive triangles.  First, most individuals tend to notice individual behavioral problems rather than broader organizational issues that create nonproductive individual behavior.  Generally, people tend to focus on human behavior much more readily than organizational behavior.  It’s easier as we all have some perspective on what makes us behave and thus we more readily identify individual problems.  Also, much less is known about group and organizational behavior as compared to individual behavior.  Both of these facts reinforce the tendency to notice and react to individual behavior.

Another reason for managerial susceptibility to triangles is the tendency for most individuals to place blame.  Many managers blame either themselves or someone else for mistakes.  The tendency to blame is normal human behavior in searching for the cause of a problem.  It also is a short-term solution rather than a long-term one.  Managers who blame themselves (take responsibility for an error regardless of whose it was) are more susceptible to joining in absorbing triangles.  They become the focal person who takes all the responsibility for everyone’s errors.  Managers who blame others are prone to deflecting or ignoring triangles.   They pass the blame along, often inappropriately, to someone else or pretend the problem does not exist.

Recognizing triangles

Triangles are difficult to recognize even when managers understand what they are and learn to look for pattern of behaviors that identifies them as such.  In the first scenario, the production manager did not recognize the clues and their distinctive pattern because he was overly focused on the foreman’s behavior.  He knew the plant was operating well, but did not trust his foreman’s ability to discipline workers.  He saw workers who were not busy and incorrectly interpreted their behavior as a discipline problem.  He did not ask why they were there or who had sent them there.

He also did not use information that should have made him wonder.  Why weren’t the men upset when he approached them?  Why would the foreman not know that these men were there?  Why would the foreman repeatedly not communicate the production manager’s edict not to take unscheduled breaks?  The production manager had a variety of visual and auditory clues that signaled that the problem was more than just the foreman refusing to discipline.

The production manager undoubtedly had his own emotional clues, such as his own anger, which were indications that something was not right, but he was too eager to blame rather than move to broader options.  The foreman, too, was caught in a similar trap.  He had visual, auditory, and emotional clues that told him something was wrong, but he never voiced his suspicions preferring to take responsibility for the problem on his shoulders by receiving the anger of his boss.  Both the production manager and the foreman chose to remain locked in a triangle rather than  attempt to solve the scheduling problem.

Triangles are not easy to recognize even by the experienced manager.  Some managers will “see” them by noticing incongruities such as non-busy workers in a busy plant.  Others can recognize them by “hearing” them as when obvious information is not communicated or when trivial facts take precedence over important information in a report.  Still others may be able to identify triangles by their own, unintentially-induced behavior.  If a manager is continually becoming angry, the angry behavior can signal an organizational problem hidden by a triangle.

A few managers may be able to recognize a triangle by their own feelings of discomfort. Discomfort to them indicates a problem of which they are part but cannot quite identify.  They know something is wrong but are not quite sure what is wrong.  As the problem worsens, they become increasingly uncomfortable.

Interventions based on systems theory

Conceptually the recognition, acknowledgement, and use of triangles are based on systems theory.  Systems theory, developed before World War II, has become a major unifying source in the social and behavioral sciences.  Systems theorists, such as Evans, Galbraith, Lawrence, Lorsch, and Thompson maintain that organizations are living growing organisms with all the subdivisions interdependent and interrelated.  A change in any part of the system will affect all other aspects of the system, in this case an organization.

Systems theory similarly has influenced the behavioral science field.  Within the last 20 years, systems theory has fostered family therapy, a new approach to changing unacceptable individual behavior.

Because family therapy developed from the same conceptual base as much of organizational systems theory, many of its intervention modes are helpful within organizations. Individuals within organizations.  Individuals within organizations and families are subject to similar social pressures, role pressures, group rules, decisions, and tasks.  For example, families usually have clearly defined members who earn money (produce a product), members who supply support for the earner (procuring production resources), members who have left (former valued employees), and members who are being supported (in training).

Triangles tend to form in both organizations and families because of these similarities.  Family therapists view unacceptable individual behavior as a symptom of a problem in the whole – the family.  Individual behavioral problems are seen as an individual “acting out” to notify the family unit that there is a problem within the system.  The unacceptable behavior is a warning that changes beyond individual behavior may be indicated.

Absorption:  The third scenario is illustrative of the “absorption” type of triangle.  The secretary absorbed information, stress, and anxiety without passing it on.  Absorption is one of the six types of triangles.  The absorption triangle is one in which the middleman, “the absorber,” keeps all the information and/or emotional content to himself.  This person has tendencies or desires to be the strong silent type and sees his role of absorption as vital to keeping the company running.  In reality, his absorbing hurts the company in the long run.

Deflection:  The second type of triangle is “the deflection” in which the focal person deflects the issues to others thereby avoiding the problem.  The focal person protects both other parties by deflecting the emotional content of the other two to others.  A typical deflecting behavior is for the focal person to tell one party to complain to someone else or to vent his frustration elsewhere.  The deflection becomes, in essence, a switchboard operator who connects the two other parties to the wrong connection avoiding a short-term conflict.

Filter:  The third type is the “filter triangle” in which the focal person selectively filters information to protect or attack one of the other triangle members.  Managers in the middle often protect a subordinate by filtering orders, so a task for which the superior is responsible is not done.  The focal person uses filtering as a means to gain power for himself.  The filter is usually selective and the triangle only operates when the focal person is sure it will work to his advantage.

Interpretation:  In the “interpretation” triangle, the focal person interprets information for the others.  He is a translator who slowly becomes indispensable to the other two parties.  A typical interpretation triangle occurs between two departments that are very dissimilar with specialists in each who have their own distinct jargon and thinking patterns.  The specialists become dependent upon the focal person and lose their ability to communicate with anyone else.  They then lose much of their usefulness to the company because they can only communicate to a translator or, at best, to a selected few, and, as with all translation, something is lost in the process.

Blocking:  Here the focal person becomes an impermeable boundary between the other two parties.  Only a trickle of information gets through the focal person who effectively prevents any real exchange of information.  The blocker usually does not pass on information because he sees no need for the information to be passed on.  Frequently, he feels he needs to do whatever the information requires, forcing him to work longer and harder.  The other two parties do not understand why he is working so hard because they are uninformed.  Instead, they usually think he works longer and harder than everyone else because he chooses to or because he is avoiding a personal problem.

Ignoring:  In this last type of triangle, the focal person is ignored.  The two other parties ignore the focal person speaking directly to each other.  The problem in this case is the focal person needs to be in the middle.  This triangle is exemplified by skipping the chain of command where a worker or manager will skip his immediate superior and speak to the manager at the next higher level.  This type also works in reverse where a manager will skip a subordinate to speak to an employee.

Ways to change triangles

Managers can use the identification of triangles as a springboard for solving previously unseen organizational problems.  Mangers and employees may deny their involvement in a triangle not realizing that they were involved in nonproductive behavior.  In fact, most participants will steadfastly swear that they were being productive until they become consciously aware of the broader problem.

Others, knowing or sensing they have been caught up in a behavioral game, will not want to admit it because they feel stupid or are embarrassed.  Some will deny their participation in an effort to continue participation in the triangle.  The triangular behavior has become accepted and comfortable; any change feels like too much to be done.  However, most people, after initial resistance, will productively use the knowledge that they were caught in a triangle and begin to use the information to decrease their participation, which begins to change the organizational problem.

Defusing a triangle begins to change the broader organizational problem by exposing it and labeling it as a problem.  The defunct triangular behavior means that the organizational problem can no longer be hidden and that it must be changed.  The fact that it must be changed sanctions mangers to develop options for solutions, notifies employees to be prepared for change, and thus reduces resistance to a solution to the problem.

There is a series of steps in the process of defusing a triangle:

  1. Recognition and identification of type.
  2. Tactical choices.
  3. Sharing of evidence and concern
  4. Identification of particular misinformation incidents.
  5. Identification of how these incidents happened
  6. Agreement to a deliberate effort to change one upcoming incident.
  7. Practice
  8. Make a few errors (regression)
  9. Incorporation of changed behavior into routine use.
  10. Identification of organizational problem.
  11. Begin to correct the organizational problem.

Once managers or employees have recognized a triangle, they should determine what type it is.  The type of triangle will provide some information as to what type of tactics are appropriate.  The personalities of those involved and the organizational climate also will provide more information as to which tactic(s) will be successful.

There are three tactical options available:

  • Gathering the participants together
  • Bypassing the focal person
  • Or confronting the middleman.

Gathering the participants of a triangle together is the most direct way to change a triangle.  Typically, a fourth party mediator is necessary when a group has tried and failed to resolve problems because of triangulations adverse effects.  The mediator’s job is to stop the triangulation process by ensuring direct communication to each member of the triangle and to point out when any member is avoiding responsibility or accountability.

As with most business meetings, the objective of a group of triangle participants is to have clear goals and tasks assigned to each member.  Triangles are less likely to continue to operate if everyone is clear about his responsibilities and is held accountable for achieving tasks.  If the tasks are not completed and the triangle is not in operation, this is a symptom of a non-behavioral problem; this is an organizational problem.

When a meeting of the participants is impossible, a skipping-focal-person tactic may be effective.  This tactic requires that one member of the triangle recognize the triangle and has sufficient motivation to thwart it.  Usually this member does not have the power or the authority to gather all the members together, so he meets with the other “outer” member.  Together they discuss specific incidents in which one of them informed the focal person who did not appropriately inform the third member.  Often, just finding which piece of information was manipulated is a difficult task.

A first successful step in defusing this triangle will be finding a mutually acceptable incident of manipulation.  Once the two participants have recognized the dynamics of the triangle, they should label it by type and determine a strategy that can begin to defuse the triangle.  A typical strategy for defusing an absorbing triangle may be for both “outer” participants to insist that the focal person report in full what they each are reporting. This strategy usually involves overemphasizing communication by requiring written instead of verbal reports.

The third choice is usually done by only one participant who thinks the first two tactical choices are not suitable for the particular situation.  As with the other two tactical choices, the participant manager needs to recognize the particular type.  He then proceeds to gather evidence that a triangle is in operation and when he has several pieces of evidence, he confronts the focal person.

Confronting the focal person often will be a frustrating process. Many focal persons will deny their participation as in the other tactical options.  The confronting manager needs to be patient and non-blaming, slowly and carefully showing the middleman how the triangle works.  The focal person needs to understand that triangles are a normal counter-productive behavior and that he is only one of at least three that participated.  Most importantly, the confronting manager needs to encourage the focal person to look for the organizational problem that fosters the triangle.  This shift in perspective will help the focal person lessen his guilt, proceed beyond blaming others, and, hopefully, become aware that his behavior is a symptom of an organizational problem rather than a personal problem.  An outside ally can often be helpful by providing a different perspective and emphasizing the broader issues.

The tactical choosing necessarily dictates, as discussed, how the evidence – the misinformation and its causes – is presented to the participants.  No successful tactical choice can skip these steps despite temptation to move to a more comfortable, behavioral prescriptive interaction.  If the manager becomes behaviorally focused, the whole concept of triangles as non-behavioral, organizationally based problems will be missed.  The participants, at best, will be chastised and within a short time, return to their nonproductive behavior.  The manager needs to place a very heavy emphasis on a nonblaming, “everybody make the same error,” approach.  The participants need to be free from their own embarrassment or blaming, so that they may begin to tackle the problem of defusing the triangle.

All persons involved in the tactical process must agree to move beyond repeated, nonproductive, individual behavorial patterns.  The manager must be specific about the ways to change.  He or she may instruct a focal person in a filtering triangle, for example, to inform both “outside” parties of all information regardless of detail or importance.  This paradoxical instruction breaks the filter behavior repertoire, allows the focal person to learn that the outsider needs and desires the information, and begins to allow broader problems to surface.

Once specific behavior is determined, the participants need to agree to follow their new ways.  They need to understand that the new behavior may be difficult because of its newness.  They should also understand that they will undoubtedly slip into the old behavior a few times and as long as they recognize it and correct it, no harm will be done.

Everyone must be careful, however, to avoid substituting one symptom for another, rather than a real change.

As they practice the new behavior, it will gradually beincorporated into their routine behavior.  This is when the organizational problem will be exposed; then they need to begin to look for information that will help them identify and define the problem.

Effects on the organization

Triangles hide organizationally based problems from managers.  Triangles are the organizational equivalent of military camouflage.  Camouflage makes one object look like a different object hiding the real object from view.  Triangulation behavior looks as if it is all individually based behavior while in reality it is organizationally induced behavior.

Triangles deny managers much information.  When managers become overly focused on an individual’s behavior, they fall to see information that may lead to an easy solution of a complex problem.  For example, in the situation C scenario, the managing partner can change his major organizational concern–lack of feedback from his partners–if he knows the problem exists, but to make that change, he needs to know two bits of information:

  • His partners do not find him accessible.
  • His secretary “protects” him from his partners.

Even if he had known his partners felt he was hiding from them, he might have been able to make changes. but without any information, he assumed all was well.  With the information, he can begin to identify the organizational problem.  He needs to ask a series of broader, organizationally based questions.

  • What organizational issues would cause his secretary to protect him?
  •  Is loyalty to individual partners over-emphasized by the evaluation and merit system?
  • Is her knowledge of the firm limited by her one man/one secretary role?
  • Does the fact that individual partners hiring their own secretaries rather than a control-hiring stem give a misimpression that the firm is only a collection of individuals?

The answers to these and similar ones about the partners will expose the organizational problem (role unclarity) and lead to correctional strategies.

Triangles breed discontent.  Few individuals enjoy being caught in the disruptive and nonproductive behaviors of a triangle.  They dislike having to cope with the same recurring problems that seem unsolvable and at the same time pointless.  Employees frequently complain to peers about the foolish ways problems are solved in their companies, yet they are unwilling to make this complaint to a manager who can resolve the problem.  Thus the employee does not complain, the problem recurs, grows, and involves others who repeat the triangulation process irritating even more people.

Triangles are contagious.  They spread by example and by word of mouth.  Managers and employees alike spread triangles.  The existence of one or two triangles leads employees and managers to focus only on individual problems, to assume organizational problems are nonexistent, inconsolable, irritating facts of life, or even desirable.  Once any of these assumptions are accepted, organizationally based problems spread, and in their wake come triangles quickly covering the problem while announcing its presence.

Implications

Triangles are very experiential and therefore difficult to identify, accept, and dispel.  Most managers can understand triangles when they are identified but would never know they existed otherwise.  Managers who become aware of triangles and begin to defuse them need to expect a great deal of initial disbelief.

However, the reward is worth the initial difficulty.  Recognizing and defusing triangles is part of a manager’s concern for management details–a key component of the successful participatory management process.  By knowing and defusing triangles, managers can gain a greater detailed knowledge of their organization, and may thereby be able to control it to a greater extent.

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