Effective Communication and Problem Solving in The Workplace

By Jeff Dwarshuis LMSW, ACSW 

Communication problems in the workplace are the result of employee stress reactions leading to role confusion and challenges to leadership. The resulting communication patterns can be corrected by the use of strategic problem solving. 

Triangulation and the Development of Problems in Groups

Triangles are a symbolic representation of a group of three people. In the areas of Family Therapy and Systems Theory the three person unit is seen as the basis for understanding group behavior, social change, anxiety management and dysfunction. The impacts of triangulation are universal and inescapable for all people. How people manage the pressures of triangulation is an indication of their ability to maintain health and optimal social behavior.

Triangles are in constant motion in all organizations and institutions. It is nearly impossible for two people to exist without involving a third person either through personal contact or discussion. This is especially true as anxiety increases during the interaction of the two people. As the third person is introduced through discussion or contact a relational triangle is created. Additionally, it is nearly impossible for three people to remain in equal relational balance without creating exclusiveness between two of them and then ostracizing the third. Generally this shift is seen as normal expected behavior. However, when members of the triangle become stressed two of the people may take on the unhealthy behaviors of excessive closeness, exaggerated distance, or over/under helping.

Psychotherapy and Family Therapy have a long term understanding that most all problems related to behavior, mental health and emotional development are caused by some form of inappropriate triangulation leading to a challenge of hierarchy and the improper placement of responsibility onto those unable to manage it. This is particularly well understood in families and there is a growing understanding of its role in organizations. For example, in the workplace, triangles may occur if two leaders grow distant under stress and over involve an employee. Also, triangulation may occur if two leaders become stressed and relationally distant and the need for assistance leads to the inappropriate involvement of an employee unable to properly handle decisions at the leadership level. Optimal organizational performance comes when leaders align and anyone involved in the triangle maintains their expected role.

The Five Stages of Problem Solving

A. The Initial Stage – After a leader recognizes a triangle he should arrange a meeting. Triangles involving the most senior members should be addressed first.

B. The Problem Stage – Each person states what they see as being the problem.  Leaders should view the problem as systemic, keep from giving advice, interpreting behavior or asking how one feels about the problem.

C. The Interaction Stage – Members bring evidence of the problem such as loss of sales or increased sick days. Leaders should openly discuss the relational shift and unhealthy triangulation.

D. The Change Stage – Each member says what change they would like to see related to the stated problem. The changes should be stated in terms that are measurable, solvable and realistic. If they are stated in this way it can be recognized in the future as solved or unchanged. As all members participate in the suggested change, they are agreeing with and encouraging this healthy change.

 E. The Completion Stage – The leaders should make sure everyone understands the expected change in behavior and provide a picture of how that would appear. The leaders should decide if there is a need to set a follow up meeting to evaluate change and facilitate accountability.

The Results of Change

Successful problem solving brings to the group a sense of relief, insight and increased productivity. Additionally, more inappropriate triangles may be recognized and there may also be a ripple effect of change in the organization.


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