How many times in the last week has someone come to you with a comment or complaint about someone else? How have you responded? A key source of stress for leaders is the way we get caught in emotional triangles. Seeing these triangles as they occur is the best stress-management tool around. It also helps make sense of the sometimes-perplexing dynamics in organizational life.
What is a triangle? The triangle is eternal in all human relationships. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen observed that when the relationship between two people becomes troubled, they will pull in a third person, as a way toward stability. In family life, two squabbling children cry, “Mom!” An unhappy wife talks to her sister about her husband. A frustrated father complains to his tennis partner about his teenaged daughter. Anxiety goes down, and the relationship is stabilized, for the time being.
Triangles occur not only in families, but wherever people organize together. Here are few examples: In church life, the pastor makes a comment a key leader doesn’t like, and that leader complains to another leader. The music director chooses a piece the choir hates, and a choir member gripes to her husband. Or, in business, a manager drops by a colleague’s desk to process a conflict he just had with his administrative assistant. The one forming the triangle feels better. In the case of the choir member complaining to her husband, she has let off steam, and transferred some of her anxiety to her husband. But he probably feels worse. The greater his sense of responsibility for the relationship between the other two (for example, if he chairs the music committee), the worse he feels, and the more stressed he becomes. Similar triangles occur in every organization. Here are just a few: in a school system, superintendent-principal-teacher; in a business, owner-employee-customer; in politics, incumbent-challenger-voter.
We can’t stay out of these triangles. And in fact, triangles are not necessarily bad; they’re simply part of human experience. But how we manage ourselves within the triangles we encounter can make or break our leadership. We manage poorly when we function anxiously within them, when we feel responsible for the relationships of others, or when we take sides within triangles. We can, however, learn to conduct ourselves more effectively in triangles.
Here are some facts about how triangles work:
First, you can’t change the “other side” of a triangle. In other words, you can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to. If you are in a triangle with two other people, you cannot directly affect their relationship. Their relationship is up to them, not to you.
Secondly, if you try to change the other side of a triangle, the situation often gets worse. People resist, consciously or unconsciously, our willful attempts to change them. If two people are fighting the more you try to help them get along, the more they will be in conflict.
Thirdly, when you try to change someone else’s relationship, you carry the stress that belongs to the other two. Trying to do the impossible always creates stress. The other two may love it, because they will experience less stress: you’ve taken on what belongs to them. But there is also no potential for change.
Remember, you can only change a relationship you belong to. You can change that relationship because you are part of it. It’s not always easy to see triangles at work. But simply beginning to observe triangles and to make some different choices about how to relate to others in those triangles can help us all grow.