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What Causes Workplace Bullying? 'Triangulation'

Have you ever been in a workplace environment, maybe your morning meeting, and you see your colleagues start to make awkward sighs or roll their eyes when you speak? Then you find out that other colleagues quietly collect themselves into offices only to have gossip-infused conversations about you or another colleague?

Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organizational psychology from University of Toronto, has presented research with two key findings:

  • “In this way, gossip is how a person’s reputation precedes them, for better or worse,”

  • “You learn a lot about what others might expect of you when they complain about a third person behaving in certain ways,”

All of these behaviours lead to what we call 'Triangulation'. Triangulation is a three-pronged approach to eroding relationships. Here's what happens:

  1. Another colleague complained to me about a specific disliked colleague at work, rather than confronting that person directly.

  2. Then, as a result of this gossiping, I started to not like this specific employee, even if I did not mind them prior to the complaint

Employees impressions and perceptions of and attitudes toward the workplace environment are directly connected and influenced by what is said and heard by others. So gossiping about colleague A with Colleague B influences colleague B's perception of colleague A. Then as this perception of colleague A becomes more reinforced through ongoing gossiping with others, this perception becomes more embedded and integrated into organizational culture, making this even more difficult to shift or change.

Triangulation is not always intended to be malicious. There are times that individuals struggle with confronting others, and have an avoidant personality. There are other personalities that are 'people pleasers' and fear hurting others feelings. What we need to be clear on is triangulation is a form of, and on a spectrum or covert to overt workplace bullying.

Triangulation brings a lack of trust, safety, exclusion, and isolating out others to your team. It has a significant impact on the culture and team as a unit. It erodes the safety of your team members, creates a closed system, where it is not safe for some to speak, and ruptures the spirit of open collaboration, removing meaning, positive and productive dialogue.

As a professional in an organization, what should you do?

Be the bigger person

Disposing of unhelpful triangulation is like breaking a bad habit. Be professional, ethical, and mostly mindful of how you talk about other colleagues with others and try to keep discussions about other staff purely professional.

When a conversation slips into a negative gossiping exchange about another colleague, begin to distance yourself, remain professional rather than an active bystander in the negative gossiping exchange about another colleague. Set clear boundaries with others who gossip to you about another colleague. As a professional, take the high road and be the 'bigger person' by not engaging in the triangulation.

Toxic workplace triangulations include:

  • Brings a third person into the conflictual gossip.

  • Intentionally goes behind closed office doors to gossip about other colleagues.

  • Adds more 'charge' to the conflict by beating the drum beat for a higher emotional response

  • Enables you to avoid resolving the conflict

What to do with workplace triangulations:

  • Gain the skills of being a more objective and professional stance to any triangulated encounters.

  • Go to the employee directly if there is a concerns or conflict

  • Should you be drawn into a triangulated conflict, encourage that the person with the concern about another colleague talk to them directly.

  • Remain professional and do not participate in the disruptive triangulation of another employee

  • Suggest that if an employee is not able to go directly to the person they have a conflict with, encourage that they explore an impartial mediator to help them work through their issue.

  • Communicate to all of your colleagues that your boundaries are that you do not negatively speak about others who are not present in any conversations.

Be Well


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