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Coaching Clinic Lesson #10: Triangle Patterns in Coaching

The tenth in a monthly series of 11 posts presenting my thinking and experience on the topic of coaching.

“When there is finally one who can control his emotional responsiveness

and not take sides with either of the other two,

the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease

and both will move to a higher level of differentiation (maturity).”

Murray Bowen, M.D.

Humans have developed a superb mechanism for managing anxiety:

We dump on each other.

Our dumping takes the form of blaming, gossiping, avoiding or accusing, usually through a third party. When this happens, the “dumper” calms down and the person being dumped on becomes more anxious.

In 1966, Dr. Murray Bowen described this behavior in enlightening detail, coining the process, “triangulation.”

Triangular behavior has since been documented in other primates and dogs. This suggests that the occurrence of relationship triangles is a fact of nature, and part of the way humans function in order to stay calm.

Triangles help us manage the intense anxiety that takes place in a twosome. Like all functional forces, triangles, when managed poorly, contribute to personal and organizational problems.

This month, I describe four common triangle patterns associated with leadership. In next month’s blog, I will suggest strategies and skills for managing oneself in the relationship triangles summarized below.

Four Triangle Patterns

For three decades, I have observed distinctive relationship triangle patterns in leadership coaching interactions inside manufacturing plants, professional firms, banks, universities, surgery centers, high tech research labs and family businesses of all stripes.

In those organizations, I have identified four commonly-occurring triangle patterns: Solution requests, exclusion moves, anxious agreement and bickering colleagues.

Solution Requests

Imagine a triangle where “A” is the leader or coach, “B” is a person with a problem, and “C” represents the problem. “B” approaches “A” with a solution request - some variation of “Tell me what to do about “C”.

In deciding how to respond to a solution request, “A” might be guided more by emotional reactions than by strategic thinking.

One of the quickest and strongest emotional reactions in leadership is the impulse to help by giving solutions. Here’s how the exchange might go:

“B” says to “A”: “I’m not sure where to go next with this project.”

“A” responds with a solution: “Here’s what you need to do…”

“B” says to “A”: “Eve is not cooperating and is never available for meetings.”

“A” responds: “Tell Eve that if she doesn’t show up, you’ll decide without her input.”

“B” says to “A”: “Client X is pushing back on our pricing.”

“A” responds: “Ask the client if we can work out some kind of volume discount.”

Notice how effortless it can be for “A” to supply answers!

Leaders in the “A” position are often thoroughly familiar with the problems and issues brought to them by their direct reports. Their subject matter expertise makes them vulnerable to automatically dispensing solutions, even though it might make more sense to engage the ideas and thinking of the person asking for help.

Exclusion Moves

Most triangles involve two insiders and an outsider. These roles rotate and change depending on circumstances.

The outside position is the most uncomfortable place in a relationship triangle. More mature individuals are able to tolerate exclusion better than lower-maturity individuals. Here are some examples of exclusion moves:

  1. Bernie has two direct reports, Charlie and Jacinta. Charlie invites Bernie to lunch to complain about Jacinta’s work ethic.

  2. Sheila and Jack are divorced and share custody of two pre-adolescents. Sheila tells the children: “Whenever you have a problem, talk to me about it first.”

  3. The Chief Operating Officer of an elite educational institution would like to participate in after-work social events, but is never invited. He believes it’s because, as a devout Mormon, he doesn’t drink alcohol.

Anxious Agreement

Highly-anxious leaders often take refuge in approval seeking and harmony-assurances. In their zeal to keep the peace, risk-avoiders tend to unthinkingly agree with whoever complains to them about another.

Consider these examples:

“B” says to “A”: “I don’t think Andrea knows what she’s doing”

“A” responds to “B”: “I’ve had questions about her myself.”

“B” says to “A”: “Did you notice how long it took Jermaine to explain that?”

“A” responds to “B”: “Yeah, he tends to be long-winded.”

“B” says to “A”: “I’m frustrated with Dad. He lectures and doesn’t listen.”

“A” responds to “B”: “I’ll talk to him – I think he’s just stressed.”

In the first two examples, “A” agrees with “B”, joining in blame-type statements about “C.” In the third example, “A” takes ownership for “B”’s problem, leaving “B” powerless.

Bickering Colleagues

When colleagues, partners or family members engage in protracted disagreements or reactive distance, it usually doesn’t take long for third parties to get pulled in. Because the outside position in a triangle is emotionally uncomfortable (if not excruciating) one or both parties seek the soothing of a third person who will take their side.

For example, Sinja and Janet both report to David, the head of IT. They have made it clear they don’t respect each other and do not want to work together. Each confides in David about the other’s deficiencies. How David responds has a big part to play in the outcome.

A father and his adult child can easily become bickering colleagues in a family business. Accounting firm partners might permit compensation issues to set the stage for accusing and distancing. VPs of Sales and Operations can become so turf protective that they blame, bemoan and bicker. In each of these cases, the business usually becomes the stage where the drama of bickering colleagues plays out.

Have you found yourself getting caught in the triangles described above?

How do you decide how to handle these situations?

Next month, we’ll consider strategies and skills for managing oneself in relationship triangles.

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