Those in middle management are most vulnerable to being placed in the inauspicious middle. You know that moment when your direct report has a conflict with another direct report of yours. Suddenly, you are tempted to rescue that relationship by getting in the middle. This is a prime example of a dysfunctional emotional triangle.
This topic of emotional triangles is of great interest to me because I have participated in emotional triangles in various leadership roles. In these leadership roles having an objective coach who understand the challenges was helpful to me. Remote work simply elevates the complexity and potential challenges that the triangles emerge.
Here are a couple of definitions of emotional triangles:
Definition #1: “Emotional triangle: the manner in which the relationship between any two people, or a given individual and his or her symptoms, can be a function of an often unseen third person, relationship, or issue between them. (Actually, there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship.)
Definition #2: “They form out of discomfort of people with one another.”
Coaches “help members deal with persecutory and depressive anxiety. Because the organizations take on the traits of their leader,” – Manfred Kets DeVries The formation of the triangle is often a defense posture and helps reduce stress and anxiety.
There are at least two warning signs that you may be participating in unhealthy triangles –
- Heightened Anxiety – If your anxiety is raising when you are talking about or thinking about specific people, this could be a sign that you are in a non-differentiated state.
- Talking About the Person With The People – We are good at talking to others about people. This is normal. In a work environment, this can be unhelpful especially if that conversation places you in the middle or leaves you undifferentiated.
As a leader being able to name the issue of Emotional Triangles helps not only build strong relationships, but also to better regulate our stress levels. This allows us to sustain success in leadership roles and more importantly to avoid burnout. Edwin Friedman himself supports the importance of Emotional Triangles in the following quote: “The amount of responsibility one takes for his or her own life is the quintessential issue of leadership and self.” (Friedman) This is from the book Failure of Nerve, which focuses on differentiated leadership.
If you would like to learn more about Emotional Triangles, please check out our preview video on this topic.