The toxic effects of communication triangulation

By Mark Hannum on August 15, 2015

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This is the fifth in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage’s own Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series.—Ed.

Systems thinking has taught me that not all communication is good or productive and that who you talk to is just as important as what you say. In some ways, my father’s advice of “just go have a conversation” sums it up nicely. Unfortunately, many leaders and organizations suffer from the toxic effects of bad communication. It’s usually subtle and systemic and often manifests as communication triangulation—the practice of talking to person B when you have a message for person A.

Triangulation has many unintended consequences. First, talking to one person when you have a message for another can inadvertently distort the message by amplifying or dampening the true meaning of the message. Second, triangulation can completely block the message if person B decides not to relay the message. And third, the ill effects of triangulation can easily be magnified when a distorted message gets passed to more than the intended recipients.

What systems thinking teaches us is that there’s always a bullwhip effect when intermediaries are involved, and that it’s always better to take the message directly to the person you want to communicate with. If necessary, talk directly to multiple people who need to hear the message simultaneously.

Unfortunately, this sort of direct communication doesn’t happen in many organizations and triangulation often occurs between bosses, subordinates, and customers. A common triangulation situation occurs when a subordinate and customer are working together on a project. Then the boss shows up at the customer’s office and the customer advocates for his needs. The boss agrees with the customer, says he’ll handle it, and returns back to his office. The problems start when the boss does not tell his subordinate what happened at the customer’s office and even worse, also makes judgments about the subordinate’s competence in the process.

Another scenario where toxic triangulation occurs is when an associate makes a mistake and the mistake is discovered by a peer who runs to their manager with the discovery.

Sometimes triangulation is structured deliberately–like when you’re forced to negotiate with a powerless associate who in turn negotiates with the manager. All of us hate this when it happens in a car dealership… why would we accept it at our office?

And, of course, there are all sorts of scenarios where an associate is afraid of talking to their bosses boss. Fear of retribution, revenge, or being fired is very real with some managers when a subordinate goes “around the chain of command.” But the fact is that individual managers who will not let their employees talk to upper management without prescreening or being present are inhibiting the growth of their organization and their results. Whether structured or not, intentional or inadvertent, triangulation is a bad practice.

Managers who encourage employees to come to them when they have problems with other employees are deliberately structuring triangulation. Managers who design jobs to be “go betweens” across teams and functions are increasing the chance of miscommunication, not reducing it. In this modern, complex, networked world, we need communication clarity, not obstructionism.

The following are some key communication practices to avoid triangulation:

  • From orientation, encourage every employee to go directly to any other employee when they have an idea, see a problem, or perceive an opportunity.
  • Gently commit customers to deal directly with the customer facing employee assigned to them. If need be, become a part of the meeting, but as the manager, use the opportunity to develop the employee. Empower employees to provide customers with choices.
  • Feedback needs to come fast and it needs to come directly from the source. Don’t let feedback make the rounds before it eventually reaches the employee.
  • When individuals or teams cannot get along, structure a direct face to face communication between them. Facilitate it if necessary. Make it clear to both sides that they are impeding the whole organization. And don’t play favorites!
  • Don’t invent translation jobs–workarounds that add cost and time to an organization.
  • Create structured opportunities for real dialogue across all levels of the organization.
  • Allow employees to speak truth to power. Promote people into leadership and management who have the self-worth to be able to have productive conversations with people they disagree with.
  • Have policies that bring clarity to conversations by using email tools such as cc’ing and bcc’ing.

So, watch the triangulation. It has many unintended consequences!

More about Mark

Mark HannumMark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.

Posted in Blog

About Mark Hannum

Mark Hannum is Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Linkage. He partners with clients to create better business results that incorporate both organizational justice and effectiveness. An organization development consultant by training, Mark’s focus has been on understanding and improving executive processes and decision-making.
3 comments on “The toxic effects of communication triangulation
  1. Cathy says:

    What a great article . . thank you for your insights Mark!

  2. Brad Johnson says:

    Thanks, Mark, for this very helpful series!

  3. moda says:

    Great article. I’d like to see more on this topic with regards specifically to how it applies to the field of nursing in the hospital. This is an area in which the patient sets up triangulation and staff-splitting, often causing one nurse to assume the role of “super nurse” in her own eyes; as well as a variation of what you have written about above in which staff members are encouraged to report directly to their manager, sometimes causing a situation in which whomever gets there first seems to be the most credible in that manager’s eyes.
    Hospitals are an arena that have evolved over time. Not many have ever been restructured. The evolution is definitely lagging.
    Thank you.

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