Most of us at one time or another has experienced a triangle. Although triangles can produce different results depending on the participants, when you include three people one person seems to be eventually marginalized, attacked, or isolated. In some cases, a dynamic develops that centers on one person trying to grow closer to another in the triangle at the expense of the third. In essence, one or even each person feels that he or she can best demonstrate his or her commitment to the bilateral relationship by putting down or marginalizing the third person. A variety of explanations could be give, but it is generally agreed that our desire for attention, propensity for jealousy, and inability of share, all play a role in making relationships with three complicated.
Childhood provides a perfect opportunity to teach us about life’s triangles. Several years ago, my youngest had two very close friends she met at school. Both were bright, gregarious girls. However, when any two were together, they talked about the missing third in derogatory terms. Once the three were together again at school, one would relay to the missing third what was said. As expected, feelings would be hurt and the process would repeat itself. The infighting became so severe it impacted their overall demeanor and school work. At some point, we have all seen or experienced this dynamic.
Like a variety of childhood experiences, triangles follow us into the workplace as adults. There are three most common workplace triangles:
- Employee – Employee – Employee
- Employee – Supervisor – Management
- Management – Management – Management
Employee – Employee – Employee
The basic relationship triangle similar to the one experienced in grade school occurs in workplace as well. As employees develop friendships, the human desire to have a “best” or closest friend impacts the dynamic when three is involved. The pressure of work assignments, duties, and performance exacerbates the stress that naturally evolves from the group dynamic and can lead to rather venomous conflicts between coworkers. Left unaddressed, these conflicts lower productivity and absorb considerable management time. Most managers and human resource professionals deal with interpersonal conflict among coworkers on a regular basis.
Employee – Supervisor – Management
As supervisors seek to deal with and defer responsibility for bad news, it is tempting to “play the middle” between senior management and their employees. The triangle develops from a desire to “make both parties happy” by committing to what they want to hear. Supervisors out of a desire to reassure employees support their concerns and criticize management. Similarly, supervisors when interacting with management criticizes employees and lament the issues that employees produce. This triangle significantly reduces trust in an organization and fortifies silos and fiefdoms in an organization.
Management – Management – Management
Management is not immune to the same human emotions and bad behaviors as employees. Some of the worst triangles develop between managers and possesses the potential to not just destroy a work unit, but a whole organization. Shifting alliances, jealousy over performance differentials, and strong egos with fragile construction all contribute to shifting triangles.
When examining motivations and outcomes, it is important to look closely and make sure that triangles are not enabling counterproductive behaviors.