In the infamous and deadly Bermuda Triangle, things seem to disappear, never to be seen again. In the communication triangle, the opposite is true: Emotions and unintended messages expand and grow to epic proportions.
“I’m so sick of picking up after Irene. She always leaves her patient rooms a mess! Could you please say something to her?”
“I saw Rachel go into a patient’s room without washing her hands. Will you say something to her?”
“Rick wasn’t helpful during the code. Can you please say something to him?”
Do these statements sound familiar? If you manage other people, most likely they do. They’re examples of what happens when two people—we’ll call them the Complainer and Wrongdoer—don’t communicate directly about a problem between them. Instead, the Complainer creates a triangle by complaining about the Wrongdoer to the Manager, expecting him or her to deal with the problem. (See Visualizing the communication triangle by clicking the PDF icon above.)
The communication triangle leads to myriad problems, such as decreased trust and engagement and increased stress and anxiety. As a leader, your job is to squash it.
What causes a communication triangle?
Here are a few factors that can contribute to a communication triangle.
- Cultural norms. In many parts of the world, individuals learn strict behavioral norms at an early age, which reduces the need for direct communication. Instead, indirect communication, such as nonverbal cues and tone of voice, works well. In the United States, communication is more direct because of our heterogeneous society, although regional differences may influence communication styles.
- Fear of perceived conflict. We’ve all heard the saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” If a situation requires me to tell you that you did something wrong, I may be afraid I’ll be perceived as not being nice—so I want someone else to tell you instead of me. At a core level, this fear hinges on the notion that differences of opinion can damage relationships.
- Love of drama. I don’t have scientific backup for this one—just 30+ years of seeing workplace drama. Typically, the Complainer wants to stir the pot and shine a negative light on a coworker (Wrongdoer). By making someone else look bad, he or she looks good by comparison, or at least that’s what the Complainer thinks. When I speak to groups, I often ask the audience, “How many of you know someone who loves to create drama in the workplace?”
Almost 100% of audience members raise their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you are the folks who like the drama?” This question provokes nervous laughter, but rarely do I see raised hands.
I joke that I speak to tens of thousands of people every year, but no drama lovers come to my sessions! Of course, that’s not really true; people just don’t want to admit they’re part of that group.
What leaders can do
If you suddenly decide to put the hammer down on the communication triangle, people are likely to wonder what’s going on. Instead, steer your staff toward a gradual change.
Share your communication expectations
In The Nurse Manager’s Guide to Hiring, Firing & Inspiring, I share the Performance Platform™ as a tool for communicating expectations. The three “legs” holding up the platform are what, why, and how. In a team meeting, share the what, why, and how of your preferred communication method. Assure team members they won’t “get in trouble” for communicating directly if their motive is positive and productive. Emphasize this isn’t an opportunity for everyone to air years of grievances and complaints. Instead, it’s a chance to move forward in a more productive manner.
Talk about beliefs and mindsets
Learning to communicate directly starts with recognizing the beliefs and mindsets that drive the way we talk to each other. Some folks on your team may have learned over a lifetime it’s not nice to criticize or call out someone’s mistakes. So encourage staff to examine their own internal beliefs around being more direct. A great place to start is to focus on what’s in it for them.
Provide training for effective direct communication
To help team members communicate more directly, share the DATA Driven Discussion Model™, which provides a framework for direct feedback. DATA is an acronym for the four simple steps in communicating directly:
D: Describe the situation.
A: Ask questions and listen.
T: Talk through solutions.
A: Agree on next steps.
The goal is to decrease emotions and focus on facts so people don’t take feedback personally or get defensive. After describing the situation, the team member should give the other person a chance to explain, and then move on from there.
Reinforce the need to communicate directly
When a Complainer approaches you and presents a problem involving a coworker, ask “What did (insert Wrongdoer’s name) say when you talked to him/her?” If you repeat this question every time a Complainer relates a problem, that person will get the message about direct communication.
Sometimes, a Complainer might have a valid concern. Let’s say, for instance, Complainer Susan has spoken directly to Wrongdoer Steven, to no avail. As a leader, you’re charged with removing obstacles and intervening when other efforts fail. So in this case, you’ll need to get involved.
That’s it. Use these four steps to squash the communication triangle—and then use the extra time this frees up to watch your favorite soap opera or reality show for the drama you’ll be missing!
Hess V. The Nurse Manager’s Guide to Hiring, Firing & Inspiring. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2010.
Joyce C. The impact of direct and indirect communication. Independent Voice. November 2012. www.uiowa.edu/~confmgmt/documents/DIRECTANDINDIRECTCOMMUNICATION.pdf. Accessed May 12, 2014.
Vicki Hess is a consultant and speaker who works with healthcare organizations to create sustainable cultures of engagement. She is the author of several books, including 6 Shortcuts to Employee Engagement: Lead & Succeed in a Do-More-with-Less World. Her website is www.vickihess.com and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.