The way nurses treat each other runs the spectrum between supportive and nurturing to bullying and uncivil. Often, this “treatment” shows up in the way we communicate. When nurses are direct, honest and respectful (assertive communication style), they build relationships with each other and patients ultimately receive better care. But when nurses are indirect, dishonest, and disrespectful (passive-aggressive communication style), relationships are broken and patient care gets compromised.
A common method some bullies use is TRIANGULATION.
Sixteen years ago, I decided to step down from my role as a unit manager in a large urban hospital. The unit had a reputation of being toxic and I was ill equipped to handle the rampant bullying and incivility that happened on a daily basis. It was exhausting. I was also going through a divorce and was in graduate school at the same time. So, I transferred into a clinician role on a Neuro-surgical unit managed by a very dear friend. Although they say you should never work for your friend, I needed to be in an environment where I knew somebody cared about me.
After working there a few months, my friend (boss) called me into her office and said this:
When my employees complain to me about one of their coworkers, I ignore them. When I hear the same complaint a second time, I pay attention. If I hear it a third time, I have a conversation with that employee.
As she was saying this, I was listening intently.
After all, this was good stuff! Then she said, “Renee. I need to have a conversation with you.” “Me?” I said in shock. “Me? What have I done?” She then told me that over the past month or so, several nurses complained to her that when I worked night shift, I wasn’t taking my patients down to radiology for their AM CT Scan. “Yeah.” I said. “It’s an AM CT. That’s the daylight nurses’ responsibility.” “No.” she said. “It’s the night nurses’ responsibility to take all patients ordered a CT in AM down before they leave their shift.”
At first I was mortified. I was mortified that I had been so careless and failed to complete my work causing more work for the day shift nurses. Taking a patient down for a CT scan meant getting them on a stretcher, hooking them up to a monitor, and accompanying them for the test. It was what we called a “road trip” as you never knew how long you’d be gone. Ugh.
Then, after I got over my initial shock and embarrassment, I got angry and said, “Do you mean to tell me that these nurses complained to YOU about this but never had the courtesy of telling me?” Basically, when I would give report, they wouldn’t say anything to me, but as soon as I left for home, they went running to my friend, the boss to tattle on me.
Meet one of the most common disruptive, relationship destroying communication sins – TRIANGULATION.
What is triangulation?
Triangulation is a common passive-aggressive communication technique some people resort to intentionally or unintentionally.
Let’s say I have an issue with you… but instead of telling you, I tell somebody else. I’m able to communicate the issue in a way that allows me to vent, but also allows me to avoid any conflict. Triangulation is a manipulative tactic involving the complainer, a 2nd and a 3rd party. The complainer chooses NOT to confront the 2nd party directly but complains to the 3rd party.
Sometimes triangulation is unintentional, which is more passive on the spectrum. Unintentional triangulation can show up as gossip, venting, or complaining. The complainer might not be trying to harm the other person, but may lack insight, skills, or awareness.
And then there’s intentional triangulation, which is definitely passive-aggressive but more aggressive on the spectrum.
Intentional triangulation is a weapon that bullies use against their targets. This weapon shows up as rumor mongering, vicious gossip, lying to get someone in trouble, scapegoating, and backstabbing. The target might not be aware the bully is spreading false rumors or deliberately sabotaging because triangulation usually happens in secret. Unless the 3rd party speaks up, intentional triangulation can go on for years.
Why do we triangulate?
There are many reasons why someone uses triangulation in the workplace.
Here are just a few common reasons:
- We’re not comfortable confronting people directly so we confront indirectly
- We don’t want to hurt feelings so instead of talking to them, we talk about them
- Sometimes triangulation is used maliciously as a way to ruin someone’s reputation or get them in trouble
Whatever the reason, triangulation is a team and relationship destroyer!
How to avoid the triangulation trap
1. Speak straight
We can all succumb to the lure of triangulation. Why? Because it’s way more comfortable telling someone else when we’ve been wronged than to tell the person. Catch yourself going down that path and just stop it. Think – if the situation were reversed, would you want this person complaining to someone else or coming to you directly?
Instead, speak straight; meaning, use the assertive communication style (honest and respectful). If my coworkers would have spoken straight, we could have avoided the 2 months worth of complaining and broken trust.
2. Avoid becoming the 3rd party
When someone complains or talks trash about another coworker, stop them respectfully by saying, “Whoa. You seem upset. Have you shared this with him?” Or, “If the situation were reversed, would you want him to tell me about it or go directly to you?”
If you suspect the complainer is spreading false rumors, say this, “How do I know this is true?” If you’re the manager, say this, “How does this affect your work/patients/the team, etc.?”
3. Develop assertive communication skills
As I mentioned, triangulation is a passive-aggressive way of communicating with each other. It’s both dishonest and disrespectful and should never show up in a professional environment. Although this may be your natural communication style, the ONLY style we should all be using in healthcare is the ASSERTIVE communication style – honest and respectful.
Developing assertive communication is a skill that can be learned. Spend the time to learn it!!
Nobody ever told me that the AM CT scan was my responsibility. If they had, they wouldn’t have wasted the time and energy by complaining; time and energy that could have been used to care for patients and strengthen relationships. Instead, they chose to triangulate – something that I want you to avoid.
If you find yourself about to triangulate, pause and consider a different approach. You’ll be glad you did!
To find out how you can develop assertive communication skills in your employees, contact the team at the Healthy Workforce Institute.
Be kind. Take care. Stay connected.
Helping you cultivate a healthy happy workforce,