Tripped up by triangulation?

4 tips to handle third-party feedback

4-minute read

We all know to beware of the drama triangle and the love triangle. But did you know the feedback triangle is equally dangerous? 

Imagine this common scenario. You manage a team of sales representatives. One of your direct reports, Romeo, is working closely with Juliet from the engineering team on a new product feature. Romeo comes to you and tells you that Juliet missed a deadline, the release has been pushed back, and the client is thinking about going to your competitor. You, trying to help, take matters into your own hands and approach Juliet to resolve the issue. You tell Juliet: 

“Juliet, I heard that you might have missed a deadline on a project with my team. Is there anything going on that I should know about? What can I do to help?”

While well intentioned, you’ve just created conditions for a toxic culture. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes. Juliet is now wondering who is gossiping about her behind her back and is suspicious of your whole team. Juliet is pretty sure this came from Romeo, but what if someone else is in on it, too? Romeo is also suspicious of your intentions. Romeo told you something you didn't observe, and then you trafficked in hearsay when you told Juliet. If you’ll go to Juliet with something like this, what might you be saying about Romeo behind his back? And on and on. 

Voila, a toxic culture where no one is giving direct feedback, everyone is wary of each other, and working relationships are broken.

This is a classic feedback triangulation situation and not only doesn’t it work, the feedback isn’t going to stick because the recipient doesn’t know or trust the source, and it’s too vague to be useful. So, what can you do instead? The good news is that you have a number of options!

Option A: Coach Romeo to give direct, peer feedback

The best way to handle this - and yes, there is a best way - is to coach Romeo to provide direct feedback to Juliet. Use the LifeLabs SOON Funnel to figure out what success looks like in Romeo’s words, and then ask questions to identify and overcome obstacles to providing direct feedback. Walk Romeo through a feedback framework and offer to role play to increase his confidence in having this conversation. 

Pro-tip: if Romeo is reluctant to give Juliet direct feedback because he’s her peer, ask him the following: “Romeo, imagine if you were in Juliet’s position. Would you rather Juliet came to me or you first to resolve this?”

Option B: Mediate a feedback conversation

If Romeo is too uncomfortable to give direct feedback to Juliet, the second approach in your toolbox is to mediate the conversation. This means joining Romeo and Juliet for the conversation, and framing it by explaining your intentions: you’re there to facilitate direct feedback, to ensure that all perspectives are heard, and that a solution that works for everyone is reached. Plus, you can share a leadership perspective when systemic issues come up. 

Pro-tip: an offshoot of this strategy is to get Romeo’s permission to share his name and the feedback and have a 1-1 conversation with you and Juliet. The key here is to say that Romeo is eager to speak directly with Juliet to close the loop on this, and that you wanted Juliet to have a chance to share her thoughts with you first.

Option C: Observe the behavior yourself

Let’s say that Romeo really, really, really doesn’t want to provide direct feedback to Juliet. Maybe the relationship between sales and engineering is fractured for a variety of systemic reasons, or maybe Romeo has gone down that path before and Juliet has resisted the feedback. Since the goal of feedback is to improve performance, change a behavior, and/or help someone grow, you can still accomplish these goals without Romeo. Start to pay more attention to how Juliet works with the sales team, and when you directly notice a missed deadline, give specific, actionable feedback directly to Juliet. 

Pro-tip: don’t bring in feedback from anyone else. Instead of saying, “I noticed you didn’t send the agreed-upon deliverable by [date], and this has also been mentioned to me by others…”, simply say, “I noticed you didn’t [xyz] by [date].” Sharing “and others” immediately results in red flags all around (triangulation! toxic culture alert!), and Juliet is less likely to trust the feedback or to want to work with your team in the future. 

Option D: Have a perception conversation with Juliet

If Options A, B, and C are all not possible, your absolute last resort is to have a perception conversation with Juliet. If you believe this behavior is holding Juliet back and impacting her growth, the team’s working relationship, and potentially the customer (internal or external), it might be in Juliet’s best interest to hear the feedback in spite of the downsides of anonymous, triangulated feedback. 

This means that you tell Juliet, “I haven’t observed this myself, but there is a perception that you missed a deadline. I know this might be hard to hear since I am unable to point to specific examples, and my intent in this conversation is to explore your perspective and figure out a way that, together, we can correct this perception.” 

Pro-tip: to figure out if the benefit of Juliet changing this behavior outweighs the risks of triangulation, think through the impact of the behavior. What are the individual, team, and organizational consequences? 

Prevent triangulation at the source

At this point, you’re equipped to handle triangulation in-the-moment! But, you’re probably wondering, “How do I prevent this from happening in the first place?” The good news is that there is one simple (but not easy) answer. At LifeLabs, when we study organizations that have direct feedback cultures and minimal instances of triangulation, they all have one thing in common: employees pull for feedback frequently, across levels, across teams, and in many different ways.

How do you do this? Start at the top - when executives role model being open to feedback, this behavior quickly scales across the organization. Two easy places to plug in pulling for feedback are in every 1-1 and in every cross-functional project meeting (what’s working well? What could be 10% better?). 

Pro-tip: follow up with people who gave you feedback to share what you were able to implement. Doing so lets people know their feedback was helpful, and motivates them to provide additional input in the future.

Back to Romeo and Juliet. You now have the tools at your disposal to avoid a tragic Shakespearean ending. When triangulation happens on your team, simply follow the triangulation-busting options!