Some years ago, a friend of mine made a telling comment about the high-tech company from which he had just retired. He said, “Give us a technical problem, and we’d be all over it. Give us a people problem, and everybody’d head for the door”.
What must have happened there? Probably, after being moved around the company from one team to another until no one was left to take them on, the “problem people” got shuffled off to the HR.
When this happens, the HR is drawn into a classic interpersonal dynamic: triangulation.
Triangulation occurs when, rather than address a problematic situation directly (which is more likely to get the desired outcome), we turn to a third person who becomes a go-between or a sympathetic ear. Inevitably, this third party is not as well-positioned to get results, but they are much easier to talk to. We feel better. The problem is off our chest and transferred to someone else, but nothing has changed.
HR professionals can find themselves in this awkward, triangulated position. They are outside the line management of the “problem person” and don’t have the manager’s leverage. Yet, the manager feels good. From the manager’s perspective, the situation has been addressed.
The HR is a ready target for triangulation. Consider this situation. People are not following safety regulations, so we need an extensive training programme on safety. A new manager got the job because of his technical skills but cannot hear any ideas that differ from his own. Solution? Let’s get the HR to talk with him or carry out a 360-degree feedback survey.
Here is another situation. People are not being honest about progress on a project. Bring in the team builders!
I once had the experience of being asked by a manager to speak to a ‘problem’ employee when I was running a team-development programme as an external consultant. I neither knew the person nor the reason why she was a problem to her manager.
Triangulation displaces responsibility for handling a problem. Even more concerning is that triangulation displaces and disguises the location of the problem, and so we end up paying attention to the wrong place. The problem is not that people do not follow safety regulations, neither does the problem belong to the difficult person or a dishonest team member.
The real problem lies with those who head for the door. Issues not being handled effectively is the real problem.
What gets sacrificed is clarity —about the manager’s role, about expectations and about accountability. When we have clarity, we know that the managers’ job is to handle the problems that arise with individuals and teams in their purview. They are supposed to set expectations and hold people accountable. On the other hand, the HR’s job is to equip and support the managers in doing that job, and not to do the job for them.
But life is messy, and so are people. We are emotional and afraid to confront. Amid the mess, we can lose sight of the clarity we once had.
Triangulation happens when both the managers and the HR collaborate to perpetuate it. The managers need to confront the ‘problem’ to break the triangulation. If this doesn’t happen, the HR professionals need to confront the managers. So, what do you do when managers come to you wanting you to fix a problematic person, run a training programme, or bring in team builders? What kind of diagnosis do you make? How do you decide what is needed here? Do you take it on as the managers ask? Or do you determine that the managers are the ones who need help, and that tough love is required? What is appropriate?
Two main factors contribute to triangulation – lack of skill and fear. While lack of skill should not be dismissed, it is more easily addressed than fear. There are numerous training programmes on communication skills, critical conversations, and the like that do an excellent job of preparing people to deal with these issues. We learn what to do and how to do it. We learn how to be clear and specific and frame our message to be heard.
This framework of knowledge can reduce fear, but just as easily, fear can turn that same framework into an empty shell. We all know that people can go through the motions and still avoid the tough stuff. Even when we don’t avoid the challenges, fear has a pernicious way of undermining our intentions. It creeps in and weakens our words. It shows up as timidity or belligerence and muddies our message.
Fear challenges our ability to come across as confident, clear and in control. Managers’ skills and knowledge can be enhanced with training, but a different support is required to help people face the fear and not rush for the door. More profound personal change is necessary for them to hold their ground. Introspection is essential. It requires a real-time, recurring cycle of preparation, action and reflection to confront the real problems. This profound work is beyond the scope of training; it is the work of coaching.
The first step is to determine how much of the fear is real and how much is self-generated. Fear plays a vital role in keeping us safe and needs to be respected. So, our first task is to question if it is warranted, and if so, why? Who are the people with whom we have to work? What is the culture in which we work? What is the trust level? Is straight talk tolerated, or is clarity sacrificed? Without straightforward conversations, no one can know where they stand. Safety is illusory. Self-protection prevails. What we do must be tailored to these circumstances. Courage without wisdom can be recklessness.
However, many of our fears are self-generated, and when they are in charge, life can seem more manageable. Who relishes a difficult conversation? Falling into line with the way things are done doesn’t hurt any feelings.
Triangulation handles these troublesome situations, giving the appearance of doing the job. But how satisfying is all this? Do we want it to change? Do we want to override our fears? If so, we must get to know ourselves. We need to answer some questions such as:
· What triggers us?
· How do we handle conflict?
· What holds us back from doing what we know needs to be done?
· How do we relate to authority?
· How much do self-generated fears colour our judgement?
· How do these affect the way we respond to triangulation?
· How can we do better?
· How well will that ‘better’ go over in our working environment?’
All this prepares us to clarify what is real and what is self-generated and how both gain expression in our environment. This clarity does not come by easily. It is challenging to be a fly on the wall when we are immersed within our company culture and limited by our blind spots. It is here that coaching becomes so valuable. Coaching provides skilled, outside perspectives that enable us to see broader points of view and expand our capacity to take on the more difficult tasks of management.
Coaching does not set out to solve our problems but to enable us to become clear about what is and what we want. From there, coaching helps us to move into action. It provides supportive accountability. Coaching equips us to be both wise and courageous, make decisions with greater confidence and choose our battles. We can act.
Experience coaching yourself to learn how to stand ground and not run for the doors
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 40,000-plus members located in more than 145 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and maintaining the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.
In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi NCR, ICF Hyderabad, ICF Mumbai, and ICF Pune.
After a long and satisfying career in training, OD, and coaching, Lou Raye Nichol retired in 2013 and returned to her first love – pottery. She continues to coach returning clients and non-profit leaders and mentors coaches seeking ICF Associate and Professional Certifications. She is an ICF Professional Certified Coach. She has established a training/profit centre in the North of England for an international non-profit. She co-founded/directed the NC State University Business Coaching Certificate Programme. Co-author of The Essentials of Business Coaching: the NCSU Programme textbook, she has taught and mentored over 400 aspiring coaches and is known for her award-winning porcelain pots fired with a carbon-trapping process.