I was working with a new senior leadership team in a non-profit organization a few years ago. Susan, the new executive director (ED), had decided that she wanted to have a more collaborative relationship with her direct reports than her predecessor. She decided that having a senior leadership team to address some of the adaptive organizational challenges would be tremendously beneficial to her and the organization. Her predecessor’s decision making style had been more consultative. He would talk to his direct reports, get the information he needed to make a decision, and then make the decision. The majority of the direct reports in this organization started their career in this organization with this ED so really had no other reference for working with an executive director. As a matter of fact, they were the first to admit that they very comfortable with this style of problem solving and decision making since they “were able to tend to pressing issues in their functional areas.”
Susan decided to have a leadership team retreat to share her vision of the purpose of a senior leadership team and to begin the work of building a team increasing the trust among the members and improving their skills in problem solving and decision making together. Although most of senior leaders were clearly anxious about this new approach, they became increasingly receptive as they begin to see the potential of tapping into this collective intelligence to help address some serious issues. All except Mariam!
Mariam had been with the organization since she graduated from college and was very fond of the previous ED. She was not only anxious about having to accept new responsibilities as a member of the senior leadership team member but resented that the new ED was “changing things around here!” She wrote an email to me expressing her concerns about the competence of the new ED as a leader as well as some concerns about Susan’s character. When asked if she had expressed any of these concerns to the ED, she indicated the new ED would not listen. However, she had gone to the Chairman of the Board, whom she was good friends with and he had directed her to me to resolve the issue.
What issue? I was confused since the Board had hired the ED and she had only been in the organization three months but had received positive feedback from the Board during this short period. As I started thinking about Mariam….her anxiety about having to learn new skills and her reluctance to accept a different leadership style….I realized that is was not so much about Susan as it was about Mariam. Aha! Mariam wanted me to rescue her! I was being triangled!
So what does this mean? Triangulation is a concept originating from the study of dysfunctional family systems. Simply put, think of Mariam as Person A located at one point of the isosceles triangle. Think about the Board Chairman as Person B, located at a second point of the triangle. And, think about me as Person C, located at the third point of the triangle and the two vectors of the triangle coming from Person A and Person B are pointing to me. Mariam and the Board member were attempting to address an issue that both were probably unaware of….Mariam’s anxiety and anger manifesting as a complaint about the competence and character of Susan. In her book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, O’Neil points out that “when a stable interaction force field (whether it is a work team, a family, or an entire organization) encounters a challenge or disruption too large for its own resiliency, the people with it experience heightened anxiety.” In this situation, Mariam’s anxiety had moved to a highly non-productive and unhealthy level. The Board member was trying to use me to stabilize her relationship with Mariam instead of dealing directly with Mariam’s accusation. Perhaps the Board member did not know how to deal with it or did not want to jeopardize the relationships with Mariam or the ED. Furthermore, Mariam was probably unconscious of how she was attempting to cope with her own anxiety. So, what did I do?
I could have easily gotten hooked into believing Mariam, sending her back to the Board member, or extending the triangle to another person in the organization, for example, HR. Instead, I decided to share with Mariam what I thought may be happening. In other words, I focused the attention away from the new ED and back onto Mariam and her coping (or lack of) with the recent changes in leadership and expectations. It took a couple of coaching conversations before Mariam began to acknowledge her own fear about being seen as an incompetent team member and not having the necessary skills for problem solving and decision making to confront some of the major challenges facing the organization. She finally agreed to go to Susan and make a request that the leadership team receive more training in team development skills and that time be allocated during team meetings to evaluate processes they were using during meetings. Mariam eventually became one of the team’s best facilitators and was often requested to facilitate “hard meetings” in other parts of the organization.
Now, you may be asking, “is this really a true story?” Well, I have changed the characters to shield the identities of real people. However let’s look at some alternatives to this story ending. In some organizations, Mariam may be asked to leave because of her “character assassination” of the new ED and lack of alignment with the team. In other organizations, the consultant may end up in collusion with Mariam and eventually fired because of the inability to provide effective consultation and coaching. And of course, we have this happy ending… Mariam self-correcting with some support… which probably occurs less frequently than I would like to admit.
Triangulation can contribute to an unrecognized and unhealthy pattern of behavior that undermines performance and working relationships. The pattern has to first be recognized and then broken. As O’Neil points out, it takes both “backbone and heart.” However, all us are capable of starting with asking ourselves two simple but important questions…am I avoiding the real issue? Why? Sometimes we do need help answering these questions since we all have a blind side. Also we are definitely capable of moving into a defensive reasoning posture to protect ourselves….even if it is an imaginary threat. Some of us may be on the journey a little longer than others because of the learning curve. It takes time to think about our thinking and then decide to make a change in how we think. But remember, not all who wander are lost!