Something I’ve learned working in corporate America is people don’t like to talk directly with one another about workplace conflicts. If someone doesn’t like the way someone else acts around them, they never address it directly with that person.
I’ve been guilty of doing that. I’ve seen a lot of other people do it too.
Part of this is the whole “reputational risk-minimizing” mindset that corporate America naturally builds within working professionals. Any direct conflict could hurt one’s standing within an organization and cause retaliation from other coworkers you address issues with. People might even claim you’re being unprofessional, difficult, or irrational.
So employees often handle conflicts in other ways. They build a coalition with other employees and “mob” the person they have a conflict with, thus ensuring less risk to their own status. Or they tell their boss about the issue and try to get their boss to address it for them.
In other words – they build a narrative regarding the other employee before that employee even knows what’s happening.
This might sound like bullying and in a way it is. But the people that use these tactics often don’t even realize that they’re doing something manipulative. They probably see themselves as the heroes in their own story – fighting against some mean, incompetent, or evil coworker.
What is Triangulation?
Psychologists have a term called triangulation. That’s where someone has a conflict with another individual and brings in a third party (a boss, coworker, partner, or friend) to resolve the conflict on their behalf.
A workplace example is when a coworker (let’s call him Steve) keeps interrupting their colleague mid-sentence during meetings. Instead of telling Steve directly how frustrating and rude that is, they tell their boss and demand they tell Steve for them. They’ll say “Steve keeps interrupting me. I don’t think he respects my expertise.”
Unfortunately, the boss is likely to mistranslate the issue when speaking with Steve.
Instead of telling Steve that people find it rude when he interrupts coworkers during meetings, they’ll relay the complaint as “some people think you don’t respect their expertise.” Steve is unsure of how to resolve that because he doesn’t know the behavior driving these complaints.
What's more, Steve is unsure of who is even saying that about him. So he has no context of the situation or what behavior is giving people that impression. So he continues interrupting people, frustrating both his boss and the colleague who made the complaint.
All of that was likely to be avoided had the colleague spoken directly to Steve to start with.
Triangulation Can Turn Into Mobbing
Mobbing is triangulation on steroids. Mobbing is where a person builds a coalition of supporters to attack an individual they think hurt them. At this point, it becomes bullying, whether the people involved realize it or not.
Instead of handling the conflict directly, the aggrieved party will tell their colleagues at work who might be sympathetic to their cause.
Those coworkers also start to notice the interrupting behavior by Steve (but never tell him directly) and start to react in passive aggressive ways towards him. They may also start taking complaints to the boss about it.
Suddenly, Steve becomes the problem employee, mostly based on an irritating behavior that could easily have been solved had someone simply told him they found his interruptions annoying.
So How Should You Handle Workplace Conflict?
Simple: tell the truth.
If Steve keeps interrupting you and you find it so annoying that it makes you unhappy to be in a room with him, speak with him in private immediately following the next time it occurs. Tell him it’s a real pet peeve of yours when he interrupts you because it makes you feel like your expertise isn’t valued.
Make sure you do it in a calm, professional manner. If you show too much anger or frustration, it undermines your own credibility during the conversation.
Make sure you keep the criticism specific and not over generalized. The reason triangulation doesn’t work is because the specific behavior (interrupting people) doesn’t get addressed and the generalized “not respecting people’s expertise” does. The former is way easier to resolve than the latter.
Whatever you do, don’t write up a long list of things you want Steve to change about himself. You can’t change a person’s personality and people will resent you if you try. But it is reasonable to ask someone to not interrupt you during meetings.
Also make sure to accept his apology, if he offers one. It could be that Steve assumes most people don’t respect his expertise either (the very thing that bothers you) and he has to “fight for it” by speaking over others. This might give you the chance to reassure him in the same way he could now reassure you that both respect the other’s intelligence. Or he may also think interrupting is normal behavior and will assume people will interrupt him if they have something important to add.
Lastly, still tell your boss. You can do this before you address the issue or after, but definitely mention it.
The reason is that Steve might not be a stable person himself. He might react negatively to direct criticism and resort to triangulation or mobbing on his own. While I do think direct communication about things that bother you are the best and safest way to handle things, some people do react poorly to this.
By telling your boss ahead of time, they will know more context about the situation if Steve starts complaining to them.
If You’re the Boss, How Should You Handle Workplace Conflicts?
When I was younger, I’d go to my boss to complain about other coworkers doing something that irritated me. Most of these were petty complaints, but some were serious issues.
My boss’s response was always this: “And what did they say when you tried to talk to them about this?”
I would usually feel embarrassed at this point cause I wouldn't have a response.
Because I hadn’t actually talked to my coworkers about it!
My boss told me to go speak directly with those coworkers about it and let him know how it went. If things didn’t get better, he’d get involved.
Over time, I became a lot better at addressing issues with my coworkers. I didn’t always do it in the best way (what 20 year old does?), but I became better at it over time. And I truly believe it improved more relationships than it hurt.
I give credit to my boss for that and I think anyone in a management role can learn from that example.
If you’re the boss, it’s an easy thing to do where you hear a complaint from one of your direct reports and say “I’ll take care of that.” I’ve been guilty of that reaction. It’s natural to want to go fix things, but what you’re really doing is triangulating a conflict.
Instead, do what my boss did when I was 20 years old. Ask “what did they say when you spoke to them about this issue?”
Still encourage your employees to talk about these issues with you afterwards. The reason is that you may hear a common complaint about someone’s behavior and if they have all addressed that issue with that person directly and nothing as changed, then there’s a bigger problem.
The other reason to do this is that you can provide some objectivity. Sometimes complaints or issues with coworkers are more petty than we can realize. Think about how you may have told a family or friend about a problem you had with another person and they ask “is that really the thing you want to complain about?”
You as the manager can provide that same objectivity with your reports if you still encourage them to talk to you about conflicts.
If conflicts continue to boil over, offer to be a mediator. Bring both parties into a room and help mediate a real conversation between the two.
Last but not least, be wary of the “concerned citizen.”
When triangulation turns into mobbing, other people will come to you with concerns about Steve. The trouble is that a narrative may have been built up that’s not entirely true. And the concerned citizens voicing their concerns might have other reasons for doing so. They might think they’ll gain favor and power with you by raising these concerns.
They’re basically the adult version of a tattletale.
It’s good to hear from concerned citizens, but it’s your job to remain skeptical until you can determine the cause of the frustration. That allows you to learn about the specific behavior causing problems and address it.