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Avoiding the Conflict Triangle: Improving Team Communication

7/17/2020 | Don Low

Avoiding the Conflict Triangle

The core of any successful business is the ability to work with different types of people across disciplines and types of teams. As a professional services business, our success not only comes from our talent, motivation, and communication but is also rooted in the way we treat each other.

As a team, our success lies in our capability to work cooperatively through communication, leadership, and collaboration. Each team is reliant on individuals to accomplish their goals. But what happens when members of a team feel alienated, misunderstood, or disrespected? What can we do to fix it?

There is a dynamic that happens too often in teams when conflicts arise. When a person feels wronged by a team member, it is not uncommon for that person to mention this wrong to another. Immediately when this happens, a Conflict Triangle is created. 

There are three key roles that are involved in the Conflict Triangle. The first role typically involves a Victim that feels attacked or mistreated in some way. The second role is that of an Antagonist perceived to have done something to harm the victim. The last role is that of a Rescuer that feels obligated to intervene in the situation. 

When these situations happen, it is human nature to get a colleague or a manager involved in the situation. The Conflict Triangle below maps out the key roles in situations where people are in conflict.


Here’s the scenario:

In a team meeting, Mary mentions that Joe has missed a deadline on a deliverable and asks when it will be ready. Joe, feeling somewhat victimized goes to his colleague, Sally, to complain: “Can you believe what Mary did yesterday? I would have never mentioned this deadline in front of the team. She should have reached out to me privately.”

Sally agrees with Joe and feels that this problem needs to be confronted. At that moment, Sally takes on the role of the Rescuer. Sally takes it upon herself to discuss the situation with Mary: “Mary, I’m not sure what you intended, but Joe is pretty bent out of shape from when you called him out in the team meeting yesterday.” 


Here’s the rub:

Once Sally talks to Mary, the roles of the Conflict Triangle shift. Sally, who was once the Rescuer becomes the Antagonist. She essentially accuses Mary of instigating conflict. Of course, Mary’s action of calling out Joe during the meeting was not her intention at all. So, Mary decides to fix the situation. She goes to Joe and says: “I understand I hurt your feelings when I asked you about your deadline in our team meeting.” Joe, now becomes the Rescuer says, “Well, it wasn’t THAT big of a deal” but immediately goes back to Sally to see why she intervened.

At that moment, the Conflict Triangle shifts again. Joe becomes the Antagonist and Mary becomes the Victim.  Joe, who now feels that Sally shouldn’t have divulged his secret, goes to her and says, “Sally, did you really go and tell Mary that I had a problem with her?” The triangle shifts again and Joe, the original Victim, now becomes the Antagonist. 


This kind of conflict between team members happens all the time. The only way this situation could have been solved is if Joe had not involved Sally in the first place. The best solution is that Joe should have taken the time to reflect on the situation and then confront Mary about his feelings privately.

 The moral of the story:

It can be difficult to confront a colleague on an issue if you are not in a trust relationship with your teammates or feel comfortable enough to broach sensitive issues. A team can only be successful when they are willing to learn about their colleagues, establish a trust relationship, and work together to achieve their goals.

Here at Tahzoo, we work on strengthening our relationships with each other and with our clients. We work on genuinely understanding the unique skills that each team member brings to the table. We’re also active in finding ways to show appreciation to our teammates.

We believe that it’s much easier to talk about our feelings with someone who has our back. Someone with whom we are in a trust relationship. We take pride in working with smart and happy people. 

"You can tell anyone anything if they believe you're on their side. That you have their back. If they don't believe you're on their side, you can't tell them anything."

There is often a source for these tough situations. All teams are under pressure to complete deadlines, meet competing priorities, and deal with other external pressures. As a team, we need to become more aware and identify possible conflicts that might arise so that we can try our best to prevent them or handle them with care and consideration. We can only confront issues if we’re in a relationship with our teammates. Ultimately, it's a relationship that will make it possible to avoid the Conflict Triangle all-together.

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