Trapped in a Triangle!



One of the messier situations I see on a regular basis has happened at least once to every leader–including me!  Here’s a true story, with the names changed: Sally is a department head.  Mike & Andrea are her direct reports.

1-    Mike, comes to her to share about some alleged unethical behavior on the part of Andrea.

2-    Mike shares this information, but makes his boss, Sally, promise she won’t tell anyone the source of the information.

3-    Sally is troubled by the information and confronts Andrea.  Andrea is angry and vehemently denies the behaviors.  She’s resentful that Sally would allege such actions and wants to know who gave her that info.

4-    After arguing for a while and thinking she’s doing the right thing, Sally admits that Mike shared the info.

5-    Now Andrea and Mike are both furious at Sally and she’s wondering, ”how did I get in this mess, and how do I get out?”

What’s especially painful for Sally is that she was trying to do the right thing for the company.  Now Andrea is threatening to quit and the Mike won’t talk to her.  How could such positive intentions become so ugly?  Why do these kinds of messes happen so often?

Triangles are a normal part of relationships.  People can have 1-to-1 relationships, as long as everything is calm.  As soon as tension rises in a relationship, a third person is always drawn in.

Triangles are not necessarily good nor bad, they’re just a fact of how relationships function. It always seems easier to talk to a third party rather than confront the first person.

Understanding triangles can save a great deal of stress in the workplace, and keep morale much higher.  There are many tools around this, but for brevity sake, let’s examine Mike’s situation.

  1. Sally should have never promised to keep Mike’s information secret.  This set her up for the disaster.
  2. Her best course of action was to send Mike to talk with Andrea about the negative behaviors, and check in him later to hold her accountable.
  3. If he is unwilling, then Sally goes to action step two.  She sits them down together and says, “Mike, I’d like you to share with Andrea what you told me.”  She may even need to prompt her to be honest about all the details.
  4. This teaches Mike the healthy way to function on a team.  Andrea can explain her side of the situation, and Sally (as boss) can remain a neutral party.

Outcome?  The two people may leave the room as friends, or at least with the situation resolved. Sally is no longer a the problem; she has the focus where it should be.

Information always “leaks” in companies.  It will get around that it’s no use pulling this on Sally; she’ll hold you accountable for your words.

And then people will feel safer working at Sally’s company.

When people feel safer:

  • they laugh more,
  • are more productive,
  • are not afraid to engage in healthy debate,
  • come up with more creative ideas for improvement of product and process.
  • It affects all the “bottom lines” of the company: profitability, morale, lower turnover and less politics and best of all–
  • a pleasant environment where people want to come to work.

Action Points:  

Observe the triangles in operation all around you. 

Ask yourself, “am I making these relational triangles better or worse?”


© Riling Leadership Resources LLC 2013

Donald G. Riling
Riling Leadership Resources

Don Riling has facilitated leadership development nationally and internationally for over 30 years.  As International Projects Director for a relief agency, he mobilized 14,000 workers to 22 nations.

He has conducted a dual career, coaching top leaders in business, academia, and politics around the world, while working as a CEO in the not-for-profit sector. Currently, Don is CEO of Riling Leadership Resources, specializing in executive coaching and team dynamics for high performance productivity.

Don has a six-year education in theology and leadership development. In the last several years he has been trained and certified by LeadersInspire, Inc, and certified to teach the Uncommon Leadership Course, (based on Bowen Systems) by Frank Staropoli Consulting.

Call or email today for a free initial consultation.

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