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14 Sep '11

Triangulation and incestuous information channels

It is not unusual when dealing with dysfunctional organizations, boards or churches that there is a lot of inappropriate conversation taking place. In fact, where there is a lot of gossip, blind copying of emails clogging cyberspace, "confidential" information being shared inside and outside the organization with people who have no business knowing that information, you have a sign of an unhealthy and dysfunctional workplace or board (or wherever it is taking place).

While it is a strong term, I call this kind of dysfunctional communication "incestuous information" because the definition of incestuous is "inappropriately intimate or interconnected." Let me give you an example. In one organization I once knew, employees left disgruntled yet they continued to call others in the organization who kept them up to date with the latest developments (including a former COO). Further, when employees were unhappy with management some of them would call board members to vent (going around their own supervisor). There was gossip inside the organization, outside the organization and information being inappropriately shared at many different levels. Blind copies went places they have no place going and you never knew what information was being shared by whom. It was incestuous in its nature, caused all kinds of relational triangulation and frankly chaos as one tried to sort out what was true, what was not true, and who knew what. I know churches, boards and Christian organizations who fit into this mode. And the key factor is that they are dysfunctional.

Healthy organizations, boards and churches operate with a healthy and clear set of communication guidelines. First, they send confidential information only to the appropriate folks who have a need to know it and if there is a need to copy others it is a cc rather than a blind copy so all us upfront. Blind copies generally mean "this is a secret, don't let anyone know I told you" which can create later problems. At the same time CC's are not sent to those who are not involved as a way of pressuring the party being communicated with. Unnecessary or inappropriate CC's bring others into a conversation that they usually do not need to be involved in.

Second, they never violate their own chain of authority unless it has to do with a moral or ethical violation that causes them to go to a higher level.

Third, they speak well of the ministry they work with to others and don't reveal information that they know because they work there - unless it is available to the general public.

Fourth, they don't triangulate. They deal directly with those with whom they may have issues, not with those who cannot solve the issue and not with those who are not directly involved.

Fifth, they don't gossip or in any way denigrate others, including those they have issues with. Whatever needs to be spoken between two parties who have a dispute stays there and does not spill over to infect other innocent bystanders.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that gossip is a heart and spiritual issue and he links gossip to other behaviors that are common but unhealthy and unspiritual. "I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (speaking to the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 12:20). Gossip is actually responsible for a great deal of quarreling, jealousy, anger, factions, slander (by its very nature) and disorder (chaos as above). Arrogance is part of the picture because when I engage in gossip I put myself in a place of judgement over others.

The bottom line is that how we communicate, who we communicate with, how we resolve issues, and whether or not we engage in inappropriate gossip and conversations matters a lot. If chaos and misunderstanding are the result it has gone bad. If order and understanding is the result it has gone well. It is a spiritual issue as well as an organizational issue.