Just the other day Louie (5yo) came to me wanting to watch TV. I said he could as he was hot and sweaty and needed a bit of time just to sit still for a bit. Louie's dad came in and hit the roof. Turns out, Louis had been answer shopping, asking the same question of Mum and Dad until he found the answer he wanted. This is a classic form of destructive Triangle, so we've printed out the No Triangles graphic and stuck it on the fridge at home!

The overriding principle of No Triangles is "You don't speak to me about them, and I won't speak about them with you - go direct to the source and have the courage to have a direct conversation". The following section is based on Session 7 of my Extreme Leadership Video Program, more information about that is available here

So.. what's so bad about Triangles?

When a triangle is created where you speak to a third party about a problem you're having with someone else, it says a number of things:

Firstly, it says that the person who has gone behind another's back doesn't have the courage or confidence to have a direct conversation about something that's bothering them. Eventually, it reflects poorly on them.

Secondly, if you are the person who passively creates the triangle by listening to the first person, you're acknowledging that you are happy with this way of dealing with issues. This sends the message to the first person that it's totally OK to go behind someone's back to get something done. It can also be interpreted that you tacitly agree with the complaint.

Lastly, the impact on the person who SHOULD have been spoken to is that because they hear it from the third party, their relationship with the first person is damaged, perhaps permanently.

So Triangles:

  • erode trust and confidence
  • perpetuate a culture of disrespect - rather than respect
  • create misinformation and breed innuendo
  • lead to back room three-way conversations being an accepted means of getting things done, rather than professional, direct communication.

These are all things that, when written so boldly, everone wants to avoid.



I think there are 4 types of Bad Triangles

(I'll tell you about good triangles a bit later)

Triangles come from many directions and some are a lot worse than others. I've just jotted down a few of the ones I see and am told by my speaking clients are happening around the place.

1. Malicious Gossip: this is probably the worst form of Triangle and it points to deep issues in the culture. If you've got this happening in your office then you can probably stop reading this list and go straight to the implementation section! Gossip that is deliberately designed to drag down another person or team is toxic, whether it's in the workplace, home or in your social circles.

2. Idle Gossip: less destructive in the short term but still something you want to deal with. Speculation, innuendo, passing on of tid-bits of private information can be really harmful to relationships when that information (usually misinformation) finds it's way back to the person being spoken about (and it always does!). It erodes trust and confidence, which is the last thing you want in your team.

3. Complaining: One of your staff members comes to you to complain about a team-mate. Wow, the number of times I have had staff come to be to whinge about someone else on the team is, well, innumerable. In Antarctica (particularly on the way down before I'd worked any of this out) it got so intense that it started to affect my own well being. This is probably the most common form of Triangle I've experienced. It's time consuming at best, and disrespectful to everyone at worst.

4. Answer Shopping: have you ever had your boss come to you and override one of your decisions about one of your staff? That staff member had gone answer shopping: asking a question, not getting the answer they want so proceeding to go around you, or over your head, asking the same question until they get the answer they want. And it's a big no-no. Unfortunately, it's not always so black and white these days, with multiple reporting lines and matrix organisations. But the rule of thumb is "line-management is king".

Which of these have you experienced in your workplace? Which of these have you found yourself doing? When I look back on my career I am somewhat annoyed with myself that I have been a party to all four. 

So what can be done?

As you know I do a lot of mentoring with executives, and believe it or not, bad triangles are probably more prevalent at the executive table and board room than anywhere else. The nice thing about this kind of mentoring is that they have the authority to gather a bunch of people who understand and can drive the change and push it through.

It would be totally excellent to be able to stand up at a staff meeting and say "From today we're having No Triangles in our workplace" and have it just happen. But like all organisational change, people need to understand what it is, why they're being asked to change their behaviour and what life will look like if you're successful.

Many of you won't have this luxury, so an alternative method is required. I suggest that you start with your immediate team. If you're not team leader don't worry, get your team leader aside and explain what you see happening, it's impacts and what can be done about it. Then champion it yourself. Model the behaviour.

How to model No Triangles

It's all about leading from where you are, not relying on being in a position of power. The moment you feel the urge to create a triangle, take deep breath and resist it. Gather the courage to have a direct conversation with the person involved. Even if it doesn't go exactly as planned, that person will respect you for trying.

When someone comes to you to create a triangle, look them straight in the face and ask "Have you spoken to them about it yet?"  Sometimes they will have tried but been unsuccessful. Help them work out what went wrong and encourage them to go back and try again. But don't get involved in it yourself, unless it's your role. Which brings me to Good Triangles.

What about when you NEED a triangle to get something done?

Of course, like all principles there are grey areas around the edges and obvious exceptions. It's totally OK to go straight to the boss or HR to let them know about behaviour that is immoral, unethical, illegal or in other ways vlearly violates the values of your organisation. That's what managers, leaders and HR people are there for. Trust me, execs and HR people would be delighted if the only personal issues they had to deal with were the issues that clearly needed to be escalated! It's a waste of a managers time to referee he-said/she-said triangles.

Also, sometimes you will have had the difficult conversation and together you and the other person are making no progress. At times like this it's good to agree to have a mediator involved. It could be your boss, it could be someone from HR or even an external person. The key thing here is that you've tried to resolve it between yourself first.

An important footnote

I talked before about organisational change. One of the key things in change is that people must have the tools to make it work. There is a distinct technique to having difficult conversations, a right way and a wrong way. In a coming article I'm going to take you through the 10 steps to have difficult conversations.