Agile Coaching Tip: Watch for Triangles

“I’m glad I can talk to you, I’ve been having a really hard time with [Insert name of peer or boss]. He is not supporting this initiative and I need your help…”

As an agile coach, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard conversations start like the one above. Invariably, coming into an organization to help it improve I find myself establishing numerous coaching relationships with people at different levels of the organization. This network brings me into situations where others share with me the problems they are having with peers, subordinates, bosses, pretty much anyone they may be interacting with at work. This isn’t always inherently bad, sometimes it is the opening of a very authentic conversation. However, this is also an invitation into an individual’s – most likely troubled – relationship with someone else. This three pointed relationship can be useful, serving as a release valve for that person to vent their problems and then refocus, but it can also fall into a dangerous pattern. Here are some examples…

  • Agile Mystic: they are looking for me to “use my agile skills” to somehow solve a problem with a fancy technique or approach
  • Be My Messenger: they are looking for me to relay a message they feel unable to communicate on their own
  • With Me or Against Me: they are looking for me to ally with them and take up common cause against this person they are having a problem with

Sadly, I must confess that I have fallen into each and every one of these traps, as well as others which have eluded my ability to describe with a catchy title. A blend of ego about my own abilities and desire to help them has caused me to end up putting myself into a relationship that is fundamentally in conflict between two other people. Perhaps there are some who can navigate that challenging relationship, but I have found these scenarios undermine my ability to help either person. They lead to disillusionment if they were looking for me to solve their problem or further resistance as I become seen as taking sides with certain people.

Managing Triangles

Recently, I was reading Mary Beth O’Neill’s book “Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart”, and in it she described the concept of triangles of involvement to represent when someone brings a 3rd person into a difficult relationship they have with another individual. Her premise is that when we are challenged by one person, we frequently turn to a third person as a means to relieve pressure. This could be something that happens in family situations – something I am acutely aware of, having grown up as one of three boys – as well as professional relationships. Indeed, if navigated correctly, a coach can serve a valuable role by being that pressure release. The question fundamentally becomes: when are triangles productive and when do they become a part of the systemic problem by propagating conflict and spreading tension through a much broader group without resolution. Let’s look at an example

Step 1 – Entering a Triangle

This situation begins simply enough, let’s imagine two people: John & Jane. They are currently having a conflict and are unable to work together productively. This is becoming an issue for the agile project I’m working on, so I begin to get involved.

Step 2 – Dumping Problems

John is very happy to have me involved and he quickly shares with me all of his problems with Jane. A long history of conflict, unresolved disputes and seemingly intractable problems. John is looking for me to help him solve his problems and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I don’t have much of a relationship with Jane, but now there is an open question of what my relationship is with her considering that I’m now trying to help John. This ambiguity can potentially put me into conflict with Jane as well.

I also don’t know everything in the organization, so I try to get context by talking to someone else to get an idea of what’s going on.

Step 3 – More Triangles

Here we see the system begin to get out of control. I reach out to a peer of Jane, but I’m not terribly careful about managing my own triangle with her. Instead of using her as a sounding board or as an information source, I end up dumping on her and trying to get her help dealing with Jane. Unbeknownst to me, Jane is simultaneously sharing her own challenges with the same person, thus poor “Peer of Jane” is now having both people’s problems externalized upon her and a very unhealthy triangle. She needs help

Step 4 – Coming Home to Roost

At this point we begin to lose control of the situation. Unsure of how to deal with her current challenge, poor “Peer of Jane” goes to my sponsor to vent her own frustration. This now creates tension and brings my sponsor into this relationship. Notice that we now have three people together in an awkward triangle and none of them were even privy to the original conflict. If it was in question before, we can now definitively say that all these triangles being created are not relieving pressure in any productive way. In fact, they are making the situation progressively worse.

Step 5 – Cascading Triangles

My sponsor is upset with me, but also wants to know what’s going on with John, as his interaction is what precipitated the very first triangle. Of course my sponsor is an executive, so he doesn’t go to John, but rather to his boss. Notice how this creates two new triangles. As the number of people embroiled in this situation grow, the number of tension creating triangles increase geometrically. Now, there is a tension between my sponsor, John’s Boss and me, as John’s Boss is trying to figure out what to do with this problem being reported to him from my sponsor, but ultimately sourced from me. Also, John is probably quite frustrated as now I brought him into a difficult relationship with his boss. At this point, I am in serious trouble as a coach. Effective communication has broken down, people are posturing to maximize their leverage over others and this diagram most likely doesn’t even capture all of the triangle as its quite possible others have been brought into these relationships. Thus we see the natural conclusion of what happens if bringing in a third party to a troubled relationship is not handled properly.

Properly Managing Triangles

O’Neil observes that a coach’s role is to help let people focus on their real problems. The coach may help them with ideas, guidance, feedback and any number of other supporting activities, but ultimately that person must confront their problem. When a coach begins to assume that responsibility, they are moving out of a coaching role and becoming something else, and this can frequently be where they – or in my case “I” – get in trouble.

Let’s go back to our situation of John and Jane. John invites me into the relationship and looks to me to solve his problem with Jane, but how can I really do that? What options do I have? Well, I could align myself with John and become involved in organizational politics, which we saw in the earlier example breaking down quickly. I could try to confront Jane with the cowardly, “I’ve heard from some people…”, but I have never seen someone actually receptive to feedback when delivered that way. Ultimately, the best thing I can do is help John improve his relationship with Jane.

In the first example, we see the anti-pattern when the coach assumes the primary relationship between the two conflicted parties. This is not a long term viable model, as it allows John and Jane to remain in conflict. If I’m working there short term, they will simply resume their problems once I leave, and if I’m around long term, they will simply both politic me about whatever truth it is that’s obvious to them, but not the other.

The next image better represent the proper role of a coach in a secondary relationship as a resource to help the parties interact.

Am I Creating a Triangle Right Now?

The next time you find yourself in a situation where someone begins telling you about a problem they’re having with someone else, see if your can stop yourself for just a moment to ask yourself a few question. Are you creating a triangle by entering this conversation? If so, how is it being used? Who is taking ownership of the problem? Are you helping them, vent some steam, work to confront their challenge or are you assuming responsibility for solving their problems? I’ve found this technique to be incredibly valuable to support my coaching, as the trigger is so easy. Whenever someone begins talking to you about someone else, you may potentially be entering a triangle and should at least think about these questions.

I hope you find this useful, as I know it’s helped me a great deal and I would strongly recommend Mary Beth’s Book, “Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart”, if you’d like to learn more. 

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