Triangles Belong in Geometry, Not in Teams


New manager Brian was surprised to learn in the Monday morning staff meeting that one of his colleagues had been given an interesting new assignment that Brian felt should have been his. Immediately following the meeting, Brian visited his good friend Matt’s office to vent his frustration.

Jessica had recently been promoted to lead the customer service team. She’d been an outstanding customer service rep and had great relationships with most of the team she was now managing. However, one of her team members, Jason, seemed to be taking advantage of her by coming back late from lunch all week and spending a lot of time during the day chatting with co-workers. Jessica decided that Jason didn’t respect women in leadership, and shared this hunch with her ally Lauren.

First-time managers face a range of challenges—complicated dynamics with their colleagues, managing friends, establishing credibility, and sometimes, managing older or more experienced peers. In Gillespie’s work with new managers, we see one challenge again and again: triangulation. Triangulation happens when a new manager is faced with an uncomfortable situation and complains about it to a friend or ally, rather than talking to the source of the problem. This issue is prevalent throughout organizations and damaging to teams.

It happens every day because most new managers have not been given the tools and skills to handle conflict directly. Conflict is uncomfortable, and the discomfort is temporarily alleviated by discussing the situation with another peer, but that doesn’t really help. In fact, it can cause additional conflict and dysfunction within the entire team.

When coaching a new manager, I typically ask what about the potential discussion makes them uncomfortable. Many times it’s an assumption about how the other person will react that’s keeping them from initiating a conversation. I encourage them to express that concern as they start the conversation: “I was reluctant to approach you because I thought you might think I was micromanaging.” Or, “I was concerned that if I brought this up to you, you might see it as some sort of payback for disagreeing with me in the meeting earlier.”

Once we are able to honestly identify the underlying cause for our reluctance and share it openly, it can often be the start of a robust, authentic and transforming conversation.

There are many great resources for the new manager—from books like Crucial Conversations and Fierce Conversations, to the “Harness and Resolve Conflict” module in the Gillespie Nimble JumpIn™ series. These resources will help managers build skills to address the conflict in a constructive and direct manner. Some of the most important takeaways include:

  • Own your part of the problem. Your vulnerability is one of the best ways to set a non-defensive tone to the conversation.
  • Ask great questions. Open-ended questions can help to move toward problem-solving together.
  • Act quickly but responsibly. Address the issue as soon as you can do so calmly and privately. Timely conversations allow you to refer to a specific incident while it’s fresh.

For more ways to succeed as a new manager, download the tip sheet on Getting Started as a New Manager.