Staff Triangulation


One of the hardest things for staff teams to figure out is how to handle complaints brought to them about other members of the staff team. Sometimes the complaints are brought by members of the congregation and sometimes they are brought by other team members. We call this process triangulation. Person A has a strained relationship with Person B and instead of working out the tension of the relationship directly with B, Person A goes to Person C to complain or vent about Person B. Person C listens to A and becomes engaged in the tension between A and B, so that now Person C begins to develop a strained relationship with B. The more triangulation that develops within a staff team, the higher the level of tension and conflict within the team. In a healthy team environment staff members always encourage direct communication between others and never foster anonymous feedback or complaints.

Let’s look at a typical example. A congregation member approaches the associate pastor to complain about something that the pastor mentioned in her sermon last Sunday that offended the congregation member. The associate pastor has to figure out how to handle himself with regard to the complaint. Does he listen to the parishioner’s complaint in the interest of being attentive and available? And if so, what does he do with the complaint after he receives it, especially if the congregant wants to protect her identity? How does he have a meaningful conversation with the senior pastor about the complaint without being able to mention the name of the person who registered the complaint? “Hey Amanda, people are saying…”  This is not particularly helpful feedback.

So, what is the appropriate response of the associate when the congregant first comes to him in an attempt to get the associate engaged in the congregant’s unhappiness with the pastor? I recommend that staff team members adopt the following protocol for handling complaints brought to them about other staff team members.

Step 1: Say to the complainant, “Have you gone directly to _______ to discuss your concern?”  If the person indicates that they couldn’t possibly confront the person with whom they have issue, or that they have tried and have not been successful, then go on to step 2.

Step 2: Say, “May I go with you to speak with _______ and help you get your concerns addressed?” If the person says yes, then by all means go and help mediate a direct conversation. If the person indicates that they are hesitant to have the direct conversation, even with your involvement, then go on to step 3.

Step 3: Say, “May I go to speak with ________ on your behalf, with your name attached?” If the person says no to this offer then gracefully remove yourself from the conversation. There is nothing further that you can do that would be helpful to the scenario. Further conversation in the interest of letting the person vent their feelings is really just gossip and not productive for you or the complainant. They are not seriously interested in getting the situation resolved.

This simple 3 step process has been very helpful to many staff teams that I’ve worked with. Obviously, before you enter into the 3 step process you need to listen to discern something about the severity of the issue. If the issue involves potential abuse or harm to the complainant or another, you want to pursue a different kind of process. Similarly, if you are the supervisor of the person that they are complaining about you may or may not want to use this approach. But if the complainant is trying to engage you (a bystander) into their tension with another person, resolve the conversation as quickly as possible. Participation in gossip about another member of your staff team (triangulation) is never a helpful role for a staff team member to play.

Photo Credit: The Tidal Rabbit at flickr.com

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