Leadership Skills: Observing Triangles

“The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle.” – Murray Bowen

TrianglesTriangles are…

It’s quite simple. Triangles in human relationships and personal interactions exist. They are neither bad nor good. They just exist.

Having said that, triangles can, and often do, cause problems in the culture. Let’s define culture as any group that’s in relationship. Culture can be family, social organization, religious organization, work team, board, committed partners, and even friends. We are leaders who work in group emotional systems, and knowing how those systems work provides information for us to make better decisions.

Triangles exist when 3 people are in relationship, in conversation, and share information. When anxiety enters in, then the triangle gets complicated. If someone wants power, then they create a triangle to put the third person on the outside, or the powerless position. It’s our job as leaders to recognize situations like this and to pull the sides of the triangle together.

Some people in the groups we lead have trouble speaking directly to another person about something that’s controversial or sensitive, especially when there’s a feeling that someone has behaved badly or at least behaved outside the bounds of the guidelines of the organization. It’s easier to unload on a third party than to speak directly to the person who needs to hear the comments. This creates a power side for the triangle; if the leader gets involved in the conversation without the third party, the triangle can become toxic to the culture.

Here are my personal guiding principles for triangles:

  1. Observe First: Many times the triangle exists and does no harm. The leader’s duty is to observe. If the situation does not work itself out with information sharing on all sides of the triangle, then it’s time to insist on transparency.
  2. Don’t Play the Game: If someone approaches you complaining about a third person, then it’s time to stop the conversation and connect those two people directly in conversation. Listening to the whole complaint puts you at risk of assumed agreement. If you just listen and empathize (not good), there’s an assumption on the part of the complainer that you agree. They sometimes tell others that you agree, when you actually don’t agree. It’s also unlikely that the complainer will contact the other person. They typically don’t have the skills to face them directly. I choose to connect the third person to the complainer without offering any information about the issue, but say that there’s a need to talk directly. And then I get out of the conversation.
  3. Don’t Create Triangles: Yes, I did say that triangles exist. Therefore, when we don’t belong in a conversation, we should ask why we are placing ourselves in the triangle and if it’s a good idea. I prefer to gather the other parties and have the conversation together, first eliminating extra work in undoing the triangle and managing anxiety of the unknown.
  4. Watch Out for Overlapping (Interlocking) Triangles: Triangles that involve some of the same people on the same topics or in the same culture overlap. This complicates communications. The more overlapping triangles there are, the more things can get out of hand.
  5. Use Triangles for Good: Going the other way with triangles can create positive results. When seeing that you are in a triangle and that there’s a misunderstanding or some anxiety spread in the triangle, then push back the other way with information, connecting the other two sides (people) or connecting all three sides (you with them). More often than not, conflict exists because of gaps in knowledge and lack of relationship. Communication is based on relationship and not solely on sharing data.

Developing leadership skills and systems depends on management of self, which is an ongoing journey of capacity building and discovery. Continue working on self by developing and refining your personal and organizational guiding principles.

Hugh’s post on Guiding Principles:

Hugh Ballou

The Transformational Leadership Strategist TM

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