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Navigating the Toxic Triangle

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about recognizing the signs of a bad boss. As I was reading over it recently, it struck me that I had left out another common pattern that leads to problems in the workplace. I like to call it “The Toxic Triangle.”

Here’s how it works. And what you can do when you’ve found yourself sucked in.

Understanding the Toxic Triangle

In almost all cases, the toxicity starts at the top of the organization. There’s a manager, let’s call her Rosa, who is upset with someone on her team, whom we’ll call Jameel.

Jameel is missing deadlines, calling in sick and showing up late to work.

Instead of addressing the problem with Jameel head-on, Rosa vents her frustration to another team member, Hwan.

Hwan and Jameel are on friendly terms in the office, but they’ve never worked together on a project. Hwan’s flattered that his boss would confide in him and takes Rosa at her word, even though Jameel’s behavior doesn’t affect him directly.

Now, Rosa and Hwan are both upset with Jameel. Things start getting passive-agressive in the office. After Jameel turns in a late report, Rosa “forgets” to invite him to a team meeting. Hwan stops exchanging pleasantries and high fives when he passes Jameel in the hallway.

Jameel is left feeling confused, hurt and disenfranchised. He doesn’t understand why he’s getting bullied. And no one will tell him his missed deadlines and excessive sick days are causing problems for his team.

Eventually Jameel leaves the company. Either he never has the chance to remedy his behavior and is dismissed, or the negativity in the office forces him to seek employment elsewhere.

Depending on the details, Rosa’s behavior could be considered harassment. While the legal standards for harassment are pretty high, Rosa could get in trouble if she has a history of treating people of color, women or other members of a protected class this way. The company may end up in lawsuit that costs them big, even if they win. The legal fees of defending a case like this could easily hit $100K.

What to Do If You Find Yourself in the Toxic Triangle

Despite our best intentions, we may find ourselves accidentally sucked into the Toxic Triangle. Here are some tips to help you get out unscathed.

If You’re Rosa, the Leader

Even the best leaders sometimes have trouble dealing with employees like Jameel. A lack of confidence may make us afraid to confront the issue head-on. Or maybe we never received training on how to tactfully deal with problems in the office.

The toxicity could have even started above Rosa. Maybe she’s seen her managers deal with similar issues this way. Or no one’s ever spoken to her about her management style.

If you find yourself venting to subordinates about their peers, it’s time to get help. Talk to your boss about the issue and ask for additional assertiveness and leadership training. Then head to HR to get help tackling the issues with Jameel in the most legal and effective manner. This could include creating a roadmap with milestones to address the behavior, as well as consequences for actions like missing deadlines and showing up late.

An HR-approved plan gives Jameel the opportunity to remedy his behavior. It may also highlight issues he’s dealing with at home, like a sick child or an aging parent. Instead of resenting Jameel, you may be able to develop a solution in which he works reduced hours or has extra time to turn in assignments.

If this lack of confidence and inability to address problems head-on spills over into other areas of your life, it may be beneficial to talk to a therapist. Don’t let stigmas about therapy hold you back from getting the help you need.

If You’re Hwan, the Confidant

It’s flattering when our bosses confide in us. I get it. But this puts you in a tough situation. If you side with Rosa, you could be pulled into a nasty legal battle, even if you’re an innocent bystander. You might have to defend the organization in court or testify about your experiences. On the other hand, if you try to play it neutral and Rosa sees you being friendly with Jameel, you might end up on her bad side. That isn’t fair either.

With a boss like Rosa, the first step is to establish boundaries. I know, this sounds terrifying. But the next time she comes to you to vent, try saying something along the lines of, “I hear you … would you be open to a suggestion?” If she says yes, tell her: “Why don’t you speak to Jameel directly about this? He may have information that could help us understand what is going on.”

If she says no, then wow, she’s a worse boss than I thought. In this case, the next time she starts griping to you, you could say the following:

“Did you talk to Jameel about this yet?”

Or

“I would be more comfortable if you addressed these issues directly with Jameel. I enjoy working here and don’t want to compromise my relationship with either of you. While I appreciate you confiding in me, I want to stay neutral.”

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

If You’re Jameel, the Victim

It’s hard to understand why people suddenly stop liking us. And workplace dynamics are especially tough.

If you suddenly feel like you’re getting the cold shoulder from your colleagues or managers, it’s time for a talk with HR. Start by documenting the strange behavior. This will give you concrete details you can bring up during the meeting.

While you’re documenting each interaction, take a step back and try to consider how your behavior might have affected the situation. Did the cold shoulder occur after you missed a deadline or called in sick?

Even if your actions are totally justified — say you’re dealing with a health issue or you had to take a parent to the doctor — you might not realize how they’re affecting your team. Bringing in HR could help you have a productive conversation with your boss about your situation and work out a solution that benefits all involved.

Finally, I’m going to recommend therapy again. Talking to someone one-on-one in a confidential setting could highlight self-sabotaging behaviors and, more important, help you overcome them.

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