February 7, 2024
By Dave Bushy, PCC
I recall a lot of conversations between senior executives. Often, we (myself included) would spend time talking about other people in the organization – most especially when they were not present. And it wasn’t always positive.
Did you ever know a senior executive who had an opinion about everyone in the company? The kind who would deftly bring you into his confidence and create a perception that you both were in the “right” and somehow justified in your beliefs? You and him – him and you. You both “got” it and the other ones just didn’t have what it took to understand, to execute and succeed.
Initially, as the executive talked, you might have been uncomfortable and maybe even felt a bit sleazy, but he was senior to you and you felt you had no choice. But then the conversation may have evolved. You began to feel more comfortable and you began to offer your own perceptions of others. The executive – probably your boss – would nod knowingly as you joined into the conversation.
You’d walk out of his office feeling safe, empowered and that your path to success was assured. For at least a short while, you felt that it was, “The Boss and Me – we’re different.”
Then, one day you would hear what that same executive had said about you to someone else. Someone that probably felt uncomfortable hearing the conversation in the same way you had. You’d then realize something about the executive. Something you probably intuitively knew, but had tried to suppress. His behavior created a series of what, in coaching, we call “triangulation”.
Triangulation is, quite simply, speaking about others through a third party (hence the “triangle” that emerges). It sometimes emerges because executive teams have not developed the trust and communication skills to confront each other with their disagreements or concerns in a meaningful and useful way. Triangulation allows people to impose their reality on others without the benefit of personal contact. It allows agendas, silos and unhealthy boundaries to develop. And it is one of the best ways to kill a team.
Triangulation comes in so many different ways in today’s organizational and corporate world. It can involve face-to-face conversations, emails, texts and even tweets. Each time it occurs it corrodes relationships and trust. And regrettably, sometimes it strengthens the position of the one who promotes the practice, because everyone is usually off balance and wondering what is being said about them.
What can we change when this happens? Likely not the senior executive. But we can change how we react to such situations. It takes some courage and it might not be appropriate for every situation, but think about these words:
I’m very uncomfortable with participating in a discussion about someone when they are not in the room.
Why are we talking about this person? If we have concerns about their performance or development, let’s invite them into the discussion.
I’d rather not participate in this. Please excuse me.
Such options must be carefully considered, because they not only require intention but also consideration of possible outcomes. Exploring them with a coach is often the best way to proceed – that’s what I did with my executive coach when I was a senior manager. We were able to explore my options and choices and to carefully consider the consequences.
The confidential setting with a trusted coach can provide a sounding board and time of personal inquiry – I know it served me well.
Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is a an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC). Dave is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout the world.
Image by ballardinix from Pixabay