The Scourge  of Triangular Communication

I wrote a few weeks ago about what I call “Whispered Thoughts,” those quiet little hallway conversations that are intended to be private but seldom are. They do great damage to an organization and the people involved, both the whisperer and the whispered to.

Triangular Communication is even worse. People often whisper their thoughts as a way of venting, they often mean no harm even though they can cause great harm. Triangular Communication is strategic, it is at best misguided and at worst intentionally destructive. 

Here’s one example of what Triangular Communication looks like in the workplace. Let’s say “the boss” tells me to do something and I think it’s wrong, stupid, or I just don’t want to do it. I want the boss to know but I don’t have the courage to say it directly. So I decide, yes, it’s a conscious choice, to triangularly communicate. 

I find “a pal,” who I can share my opinion with. I have to choose this person very carefully, they must have one outstanding quality, there can be no compromise on this particular quality. They must absolutely agree with me. 

The last thing I need is for this person to agree with is “the boss” and stop my negative momentum.  I need this person to reinforce my thoughts and opinions about whatever it is I think is stupid or wrong. 

I also need this person to tell someone else what I think. It would close the triangular communication sooner if they told the boss directly but it doesn’t really matter who they tell. Eventually they will tell someone who will tell the boss and my triangular communication will be complete. Maybe it’s someone who they told that will tell someone who will tell the boss but it’s all the same, the message got back to the boss and that’s what I needed. 

If that last sentence is hard to follow then good, because that’s how I intended it to be. Triangular Communication takes what should be a straight-forward conversation and turns it inside out and upside down. Look at the mess this just caused, I polluted at least one person’s attitude; they almost certainly polluted others and it just goes on and on. Triangular Communication just possibly might be the greatest productivity killer in any business or organization today.

Triangular Communication might start more rumors in organizations and businesses than any other thing we could say or do. That’s because as my “message” is passed from one person to another it changes. It goes from “the boss doesn’t think I sharpen my axe often enough” to “the boss is an axe murderer” in a few brief exchanges. 

No matter how many people became involved in my triangle only two people could resolve the issue, that would be me and “the boss.” 

Now it might not be the boss at the top of the triangle, it could be a co-worker, spouse, family member, almost anyone. All that is required is the “you” in the triangle to lack the courage to speak directly to the person at the top of it. It also helps if you just don’t give a rip about the collateral damage you cause while communicating in such a childish manner.

If you can’t muster the courage to speak up then find the courage to keep quiet. You and everyone around you will be better off for your effort, no matter which one you choose.

11 thoughts on “The Scourge  of Triangular Communication

  1. Triangulation is a big destructive killer in relationships. That’s why it’s important to dial direct FIRST, if at all possible.

    There’s generally two reasons why I’ve by-passed direct comms AFTER an initial attempt on my part has been made: 1) If it is perceived as relatively minor and I can do my best to not take it personally, I’ll carry on with my life and 2) If I’ve tried to communicate and have been otherwise stonewalled. If the person and/or issue is important enough to me, I’ve then proceeded with advise from Matthew 18: 15-20. However, I’ve also found this isn’t really all that effective unless every person involved UNDERSTANDS the for lack of a better phrase…standard operating procedures! (grins)

    If the people involved had no idea I was actually following a carefully laid out PLAN or CODE, it can make matters worse if they don’t understand what and why I do what I do or did what I did.

    Now, if this happens too many times with the same person; whether it’s with a ‘boss’, co-worker, friend, or lover, etc. I’ve had to make decisions about whether or not I would remain working in specific environments or need to change the nature of certain relationships if I found that open, honest, and direct communications were not possible with those individuals. We can ask,seek, inquire, do our best to figure things out with another person, yet if they don’t want to be honest and communicate, we aren’t going to get anywhere. The results is a huge waste of time and crazy making behaviors. And life is simply too short for all that no matter HOW much we care about people.

    And that’s NOT easy to do when we really do care about people. That one fact alone has kept me in situations longer then I should have because I didn’t want to give up on people.

    I hate giving up on people….

    • I hate giving up on people to… I also hate giving in to people when giving in means letting go of my values to do it. Some people it seems just won’t allow direct communication into their lives and that is when tough decisions have to made. Sounds like you are capable of making them!

      • Do you want to know the most frustrating thing for me to deal with? When I am dealing with someone who claims to be a ‘believer’ and yet completely DENIES what they believe in both words and actions. (related to a recent issue)

        And it’s generally these same people who will be the ones to throw their hands up in the air adn reject ‘unbelievers’ saying they will go to hell for hating ‘God’ when it wasn’t God at all that turned them off. It was the hateful behavior of those who CLAIM to be followers of that ‘God’ that turn most people away.

        Please note the above is not directed at you personally. Yet it happens frequently enough it’s something many people might want to digest and try to understand.

        Thanks again for sharing another important topic.

  2. Great blog! That type of whisper-down-the-lane communication is always destructive, particularly to morale. In my organization, I always told my employees that if at any point they were unhappy with something, they needed to talk with the person in the company who could potentially do something about the problem – as opposed to venting to a client, co-worker or anyone else who would listen..

  3. PV says:

    Triangular communication is fodder for gossip mongers. Gossip can grow wild and unsubstantiated. Its a different thing if the person finds a confidante…however, if I suspect that this person is just dishonest and less trust worthy, based on their actions and behaviors in other circumstances, then I refuse to be drawn into their issues….I raise my guard. It takes a lot of personal investment to develop trust.

    I have also been at the other end of the spectrum. A supervisor or a lead is partisan or has favorite team members, and uses them as vehicles for disseminating information. The boss avoids direct contact…a disconnected specimen who just demoralized the very team he is supposed to lead. Politics, may be? Leadership?? I do not know.

    • If we define leadership as the ability to influence than yes, the “boss” you describe is a leader. A good leader or an authentic leader? Not really, not even close.

      It is so damaging in so many ways when a person like you describe is put into a leadership position. But it happens – that’s why leading from the middle, without a title or position is soooooo important!

  4. I’ve experienced triangulation when coaching a manager and subordinate.

    As a coach, confidentiality is first and foremost.

    All I can ask the client is “What do you want to do with this information?”

    It’s up to me, the coach, to empower the client to take action.

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