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Few moments define workplace friendship like the very first flirtation with gossip. Your colleague rolls her eyes at you when somebody cracks a particularly dumb joke in a meeting, or sends out a WhatsApp DM reacting to an awkward conversation ina meeting. You’ve taken a brand-new, tasty step in your relationship: you’re colleagues who can discuss other colleagues with each other.
Usually, this gossip-infused camaraderie is long-awaited and electrifying. Research study has revealed that workplace relationship is vital to employee satisfaction, and that moaning to colleagues can boost friendship, contentment, and efficiency.

“In our studies, we find that when individuals can gossip about one another, it can lead to two useful outcomes,” says Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Toronto. First, gossip helps you understand what to make of the colleague being gossiped about, primarily if you’ve never engaged with them before. “In this way, gossip is how a person’s reputation precedes them, for better or worse,” says Feinberg.
And secondly, gossip can help convey more nuanced workplace standards. “You learn a lot about what others might expect of you when they complain about a third person behaving in certain ways,” claims Feinberg.
Casual gossip is one thing. However, the fact is that gossip is not always accurate or fair. Routine snarking about your colleague can have catastrophic consequences and could damage a person’s workplace credibility for months, even years. When gossiping about your colleague’s tips from “banter” to toxic, it usually an under-discussed type of workplace bullying called triangulation.

What is triangulation?
Triangulation defines a three-pronged, corrosive relationship: I moan to you about somebody I dislike, rather than speaking to that person; subsequently, you begin to hate them having previously liked them or had no impression of them.
“A person’s perceptions of and attitudes toward their work environment are influenced by what they hear others say,” explains Patricia Sias, a teacher of business interaction concentrating on gossip at the College of Arizona. “So talking about Person A with Person B influences Person B’s perception and attitude toward Person A. As this perception of Person A is reinforced through talk and shared with others, it becomes more embedded and harder to change.”.

Triangulation isn’t always done with malicious intent. Often, it happens when we don’t know how to confront other people directly or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. However, often, triangulation can be a subtle way of bullying by seeking to ruin someone’s reputation or to get them to quit.
Inevitably, the intent matters much less than the effect. Triangulation can have significant cultural ramifications, wearing down the trust and communication that are essential for a positive work environment; especially when the leaders are the ones doing the triangulating. “Triangulation destroys teams and relationships by impeding culture and removing dialogue,” Robley adds. “People feel unsafe because mutual respect and mutual purpose have been violated.”

Exactly how to spot triangulation
When triangulation is passive, it usually manifests as moaning or venting, states Renee Thompson, CEO and owner of the Healthy Workforce Institute. This venting usually takes place in private or in digital chats among small groups of peers. An example, I message you to complain that our colleague spoke down to you in a meeting. You do not know the colleague who’s being talked about well; however, you understand the sabotaging trope of colleagues undermining colleagues to appear relevant, and start to think of them as a manipulative piece-of-work.
When triangulation is more willful, it manifests as clear passive-aggressive interactions intent on making you, the recipient, really dislike the person being gossiped about. This bullying is marked by strong emotions, intense descriptors, and clear boundaries of anger and dislike. As an example, there’s a huge difference between complaining about someone’s actions (e.g. “It’s so annoying that she undermined me”) and degrading somebody’s character (e.g. “She’s terrible at her job and should be fired”).
There’s also a distinction in between asking , “Can you help me see if I’m misreading what just happened?” and asking, “Can you believe what she just did?” The former can help defuse tensions, while the latter forces the listener to agree with your point of view.
“It can be extremely healthy and positive to involve others if your intent is to seek insight, understanding, and a different perspective,” claims Robley, keeping in mind that the conversation should not be an alternative to speaking directly to the person you have a problem with., but instead a chance to check you’re not consumed by your own biases.
However, if you want to share adverse feelings with a 3rd party as a way to validate what you’re telling yourself, you’re headed in a bad direction. “These stories come with strong emotions, and, the stronger the emotions, the harder it is to have honest, productive dialogue,” says Robley. “Thus, psychologically, it is damning to involve a third party because it only serves to keep you in your story — especially if you’re confiding in a colleague you know will see things from your perspective.”

What to do if you’re the third party
Being on the receiving end of triangulation can be awful, especially if you’re afraid that shutting it down may negatively affect your relationships, but there are a couple of easy techniques you can use to diplomatically dispell tension.
First, always remember that there’s more to the tale, states Sheila Heen, a co-leader of Harvard’s Negotiation Task. If you can recognise triangulation as it’s happening, you can take a step back and think critically about the information you’re being given.
Second, urge the person to talk with their peer directly and see if they can reach a mutual understanding. “The complainer might be dismissive– claiming something like, ‘Oh, I’ve tried that,’ or ‘They’ll never listen,’ — but suggesting they should be having the conversation directly signals that you don’t think that simply complaining should be the end of the story,” states Heen.
Third, remember this person may do the same thing to you in the future. “Knowing this, let them know that you expect them to talk with you if there’s ever a problem before you hear it from others,” Heen recommends.
Most significantly, don’t spread gossip. The negative impact of triangulation only spreads when recipients accept one story as fact and share it without questioning underlying motives, exaggerations, and lies.
Open, honest discussion is the bedrock of a healthy workplace. While a little gossip can be harmless, knowing the difference is key. If somebody is genuinely bothering you, the best option is to discuss the problem privately, respectfully, and without dragging others into it.

More helpful reading:
How Bullies Use Triangulation as a Weapon in the Workplace
Overcoming Triangulation: How to Stop that Toxic Backchanneling

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