Apr 11, 2012

4 Steps to Help Avoid Triangulation

Chances are you are triangulated by your staff on a daily basis, and you do not even realize it.  What is triangulation and how does it work?  Here is an example:  One of your direct reports (A) comes to you (B) and vents or complains about another individual on the team (C).  They relay in detail an event that took place, how they feel about it, and that they would like it taken care of.  What your direct report (A) wants is for YOU (B) to take care of it by addressing the situation with the other team member (C).   You want to be a good manager so you take the bait and address the issue with the other team member (C).  Does this scenario sound familiar?

Here's the catch:  By taking the bait and addressing the situation, you have let your direct report off the hook for handling their issue, AND allowed your direct report to assign that task to you.  That is triangulation and how it works.  How can you stop being triangulated by your staff?  By using these situations as coaching opportunities, and incorporating the following four steps:

  • Listen, and listen well. You definitely want to listen to what your direct report is saying, and what they are not saying.  Pay attention to body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.  These will clue you in to the underlying emotional triggers.  
  • Acknowledge the emotion and separate it from the facts of the situation.  There is always emotion attached a conflict situation.  Be sure to listen for both the facts and the emotion. Acknowledge that the emotion exists, and separate it from the facts of the situation.  Discuss each of them separately.  
  • Ask the right questions.  The key to facilitating the growth and development of your direct report is to ask the right questions.  As a manager your first instinct is to provide solutions and give direction.  However, this does not help your direct report to grow and develop professionally.  Ask open-ended questions to get them thinking about solutions and strategies for how to handle things going forward.  A few examples of coaching questions are:
    • What would make things better?
    • What would you like to see changed?
    • What is your comfort level with addressing the issue with your team mate?
    • What makes you uncomfortable about addressing the issue?
    • What happens if you do not address the issue?
    • How will you know this issue has been resolved?
    • What steps can you put in place to ensure this issue does not come up again?  
    • How will you handle it the next time this issue comes up?
    • When would you like to have this conversation with your team mate?
    • What exactly would you like to say to your team mate?
  • Mediate when necessary.  Give your staff the opportunity to address the issue one-on-one.   You may be surprised to see how quickly they come to a resolution.  If the discussion results in an impasse, step in and mediate.  
There are benefits to incorporating these four steps.  First, it prevents you from being triangulated.  Second, it ensures the task of addressing the issue is left where it belongs -- with your direct report.  

Triangulation happens in all aspects of our lives.  When was the last time you wound up in a triangulation situation and wondered how you got there?  


  1. This might also help in raising my four kids, three of them teenagers. :)
    Kidding aside; Yes, this happens to me as the leader of several networking groups. A complains about B and wants me to resolve. Your questions and mediation suggestions will come in handy!

  2. Dorien, I am glad you find the questions useful. This is a great way to make sure resolution of the issue stays between the two parties involved. Oh, and, it works great with teenagers. By the time they are past their teenage years, they will be quite skilled at conflict resolution.

  3. I've seen this happen frequently in volunteer groups in addition to the workplace. It can happen in any group of more than 2 people, even when all have equal "authority."

    I find your list of questions especially helpful. Sometimes a person just doesn't know how to address an issue on their own. If you can help them prepare for a conversation by giving them things to think about and a clear vision of the goal of the conversation, they are more likely to have a productive conversation.

  4. Thanks Karleen. The nice thing about this technique is that after 2-3 times the employee gets to the point where they come to you in as a last resort. They take steps to resolve the issue themselves because they know you will not take the bait to resolve it for them.

  5. Hey Grace, you channeling me :-) sounds great. Just a reminder that triangulation is not a bad thing always. Especially, if you can use it to clarify (your questions are great), help the person think through the situation, and practice good confrontation moves. it helps when you (as the person being drawn into a fight) are clear/transparent about not taking up the fight and about helping the person do the work (that is exactly what a conflict coach does). Also love the acknowledgement of the validity of emotions. they are such an important component of life including all conflicts. Well done :-) Best, Doc Peg

  6. Thank you Peggy. It's good to know we are on the same page from a coaching perspective. Addressing the emotions is definitely a key piece that often gets missed.

  7. Hi Grace, this is a great post. I'm reminded of the "One Minute Manager meets the monkey" book that I read a little while ago about monkeys being transferred from a direct report to a manager's back. Very much what you are describing. Very useful list of questions. Essentially aiming for a "how can I help you resolve this without resolving it FOR you" outcome.

  8. Hi Grace, very good post and great list of questions. As a previous manager of multicultural and multi-fonctional teams, it happened very frequently. My main challenge was to have people stop blaming each others with general statements based on cultural differences like "Germans are not flexible" or "the Headquarter people don't understand us in the regional team" and have people go down to one on one interaction. Sometimes it was not easy and I wished at that time I had been trained how to deal with triangulation !

  9. Hi Mi, this is a very similar concept, applied to communication. I have often seen where managers recognize the concept when it comes to actual tasks/assignments (monkeys). However, they do not recognize it when it comes to resolving issues between staff (triangulation).

  10. Hi Anne. Dealing with multicultural and multi-functional teams can be quite challenging. Doubly so when your support is decentralized (e.g. headquarters and regional). Kudos to you for encouraging people to have one-on-one interactions instead of leaving it at generalizing.


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