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July 03, 2015

What's the difference between Mediation and Toxic Triangulation?

"We are always 100% responsible for our 50% of any relationship." 
Source Unknown
And yet in life, when things are challenging, we often observe how humans focus on the other's 50% while ignoring their own. 
This tendency to deflect responsibility is common in the workplace with employees blaming others while ignoring their own contribution to a problem.
And when they are unable to address their challenge directly themselves, they often turn to third parties-typically those with some power to address the situation in their favor. Their narrative may reveal a victim mentality. Regardless, they want their perspective validated and something done.
If your company has an 'open door policy' employees may go above their supervisors head to address their concerns with someone higher up the chain of command. And from time to time employees do go to HR.
This is where you have to be careful, as there is a thin line between actions that are helpful and those that are not! 
Triangulation occurs when a third person gets involved in the relational dynamics of two others. Toxic triangulation occurs when the third person doesn't restore direct communication, and instead distorts it and either unwittingly or intentionally colludes with the person who complained.
Here's what author's Wilmot and Hooker (on page 226 of their book, Interpersonal Conflict), have this to say about toxic triangulation:

"When people perceive that they are the low-power person in a conflict, their typical response is to try and form a coalition with another person....Three people find it difficult to maintain balance in a conflicted relationship. Usually they become structured as a "dyad plus one. Communication triangles are unstable, leaving one person out."
Ideally, employees who have a functional interdependency, address their issues directly, and find working resolutions themselves. 
When you become the go between for communication and use your influence or positional power to address a challenge on another's behalf, not only do you make it difficult it for yourself, but you support toxic triangulation!
This is what toxic triangulation looks like. B who has less power than A goes to C for support. C takes B's side and communicates with A on behalf of B:
As always, in challenge, lies opportunity!

The potential to take more of a mediative posture arises when we are that third party. You can support direct communication and restore responsibility for decision making to the two involved.

When you do that, and don't take sides, you are effectively mediating. You are equally there for both of them. Instead of contributing toward toxicity, you foster conditions for peace and harmony.
This approach is exactly what the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) expects as per their 2014 competency certification model. Here is a link for those interested in a short summary of the relationship management competency, which expects among other things, that senior HR managers "will mediate difficult employee relations as a neutral party."


Beware of Triangles!
Don't get pulled into communication triangles
Wikipedia describes the Bermuda Triangle as "a loosely defined region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and ships are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances." The website adds that "It has also been known as the Devil's Triangle." Although the article goes on to debunk the concept, the stories and fear remain for many people.

In organizations, there also lurks a "devil's triangle" that can cause enormous damage and sometimes make employees disappear, as they resign in frustration or are terminated for being a problem employee. In reality, this triangle is a problem with the system. The people simply play it out.

Here's how it most often works. Lucille is mad at, or has been hurt by, Kathy. Instead of talking to Kathy to clear up the issue between them, Lucille talks to Pat about the situation. Pat empathizes with Lucille. And then Pat goes to Kathy and tells her what Lucille said. Sometimes this is done to try to help the situation, sometimes it is simply gossiping. In any case, this has created a triangle of Lucille, Kathy and Pat - in which Lucille and Kathy do not ever talk directly to work out the initial problem.

The triangle happens when Pat is involved in a situation that really has nothing to do with her. This also happens when groups form alliances against each other. Team A doesn't like to work with Team B. Team C must decide whether to side with Team A or Team B. Triangulating is the pattern in which two people or groups will side with or against another individual or group. The scarcer the resources are in an organization, or the more unclear the roles and responsibilities are, the greater the amount of triangulating. In politically charged situations, the landscape changes frequently as to which individuals or groups are siding with or against each other.

And so it goes, on and on. . . Typically, such triangulating causes other people to get involved, expanding the morass and sucking more and more victims into the swamp of messy communication. Triangulating is the classic "He said, she said, they said" situation. The amount of time and energy that "He said, she said, they said" problems can devour in an organization can be astronomical.

Too often the person in Pat's situation is the supervisor. There are certainly times when it is appropriate for a supervisor to be involved in a situation between two employees. Bullying, harassment, lack of follow through or accountability are a few such situations. But it is not always appropriate.

What's a supervisor to do? Stop! Stop being a part of the underground complaint system. This is a tricky thing because an important part of your job as a supervisor is to listen to people, to support them and to help them. But the listening and support cannot come at the expense of clear communication. As an HR Director, I developed a practice of telling people, "I'm happy to hear your concerns and to help you develop a plan of action." The plan of action might involve me helping them talk to the person, or it might involve me dealing with the situation if it was a compliance or safety issue but it was still a plan of action.

Often the appropriate thing for the supervisor to do when faced with a triangle situation is to simply say, "Let's bring Kathy in right now so we can talk this through." Here are some questions that can help you figure out how to proceed, while avoiding getting sucked into a triangle:
How does this impact your ability to do your work? (The answer to this question will inform you whether you need to get involved. It can help you see if this is a work problem or an interpersonal conflict.)
Were you there when that was said? (A question to detect gossiping)
What processes or procedures could we put into place to keep that from happening again in the future?
When can the three of us talk about this together?
What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?
What work do you need to be focused on right now? (if redirection is appropriate)
By not taking part in triangulating, you are helping to build a culture of direct communication and problem solving. You also won't make enemies by inadvertently taking sides in an issue in which you really only have partial information.

As an organization, it is important to build a triangle-proof system. Train people in communication skills and conflict resolution skills. Make a process for the entire organization to follow regarding conflicts. Make a one-vent rule. This rule recognizes that sometimes we just have to let our frustrations out. So any employee can "vent" to a buddy about a frustration ONE time. Then the ventor must either let the issue go, or deal with it. If the same issue comes up again, the buddy directs the ventor back to the person to talk directly.

Build a triangle-free environment so you, and your organization, don't get sucked into the devil's triangle and disappear.

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