no triangles

October 11, 2019

Rachael Robertson is an Antarctic expedition leader. She is the author of Leading on the Edge and Respect Trumps Harmony – I don’t like you, but that’s OK (will be released in 2020).

Harmony may seem to be too enticing a prospect to be ignored, but it is hardly the mark of a robust organization. Leaders who pursue it mindlessly risk losing the value integrity and respect can bring.

Integrity is critical to the success of a team, and the lack of it leads to poor performance. Teams and organizations need simple ways to encourage the right behaviors and tools to call out behaviors that are counter-productive. One simple teamwork tool can increase staff productivity by up to 40 percent.

I have been researching the link between integrity and productivity for 13 years and the business case is clear: over 90 percent of people claimed a culture of ‘no triangles’ would have a significant impact on their work productivity.

No triangles is the practice of direct conversations, for example, I don’t speak to you about him, and they don’t speak about me without me. If I have an issue with someone I go directly to that person, I do not take it to a third party. Implementing a no triangles culture builds respect in a team and ensures we are treating each other with integrity.

The impact of this behavior varies across industries but what is resoundingly true across all businesses, is that spending time in ‘triangle’ conversations is both time-consuming and exhausting, especially for leaders.

Leaders should be allocating their time to the actions that have the most impact on the business bottom line, and right at the top of this list is retaining talent. That means spending time with your best performers and making sure their contribution is valued. Any leader who is caught up in the repetitive loop of triangle conversations simply will not have the time or energy to go and acknowledge their best contributors.

Leaders lose their way when they attach more importance to team harmony, than integrity and respect. This is when leaders spend their time listening to staff vent, complain, or moan about their colleagues, with no real desire to solve the problem, the leader just wants to keep the peace—which is dangerous.

With my team in Antarctica, the rule was ‘respect trumps harmony’-I don’t have to love you, or even like you, but I will always treat you with respect.

When a team focuses on harmony as its main goal, that is, we all get along, we all see eye to eye, everything is great here… several things happen.

My expedition team was incredibly diverse across many measures—age, gender, religion, profession, cultural background—so it was implausible to think we would all live together for an entire year, through months of darkness, with no way in and out, and all be best friends. It simply would not happen, and I did not expect it to.

Rather, as leader, my expectation was we would treat each other with integrity and respect.

When a team focuses on harmony as its main goal, that is, we all get along, we all see eye to eye, everything is great here… several things happen.

Firstly, any bullying and harassment still goes on. It just goes underground. People will not raise it as an issue as they do not want to be the person who rocks the ‘harmony boat’. So, they keep quiet. The job of the leader is to deal with these issues as, and when, they arise, so being seen to manage the issues, rather than sweep them under the carpet for the sake of team unity, is critical.

Secondly, when you focus on harmony and minimize any differences, you will not get innovation. You cannot innovate when everyone needs to agree! People will not offer a difference of opinion, or have a conflicting view, or engage in robust debate because, again, they do not want to upset the harmony balance. The role of a leader in this situation is to canvas different ideas, encourage discussion on all options, find the best outcome or solution from a vast array of varying and diverse people and experiences.

Thirdly, and most importantly, when a team focuses on harmony at the exclusion of all else, people get hurt; physically or mentally, which also exposes the business to additional risk. People turn a blind eye to someone acting unsafely, for example not carrying out an activity according to the correct safety protocols, because they do not want to get involved. They want to keep the peace.

When a team focuses on harmony at the exclusion of all else, people get hurt; physically or mentally, which also exposes the business to additional risk.

Research shows that in workplaces where safety is paramount (eg: mining, resources, utilities, manufacturing, construction), the most critical inhibitor to people stepping into stop unsafe activities is a need to feel included. If, for any reason, a person feels not included, or not part of the team, then they will not get involved in safety leadership. This happens when there is a culture of harmony and sameness over a culture of integrity and respect.

In these workplaces especially, people need to feel included and respected. Not loved, just respected. The leader sets the tone for this culture by stepping in and managing the issue, every time.

Similarly, if the focus is on a happy and harmonious team, where everything is great, no one will put their hand up and reveal if they are mentally not ‘okay’ right now. They perceive that if they are not okay, and everyone else is (because the prevailing culture is harmony), then they best keep quiet about it.

Thirdly, people walk away from unethical behavior. Even if they know the behavior is wrong, and will end up significantly damaging the business, they chose to ignore it because they believe that keeping the peace and harmony is better for the greater good. History shows many financial institutions around the world have crumbled under the unethical behavior of a small group of staff. Without doubt, other people in the business were aware of what was going on, but instead of intervening or reporting the behavior, they chose to look away, with devastating consequences.

It is also an illusion. A team built just on harmony will crumble under pressure. A case in point, a few years back I had an external agency that organized all my travel and accommodation requirements. One day, they made a significant error booking me to speak at two different events, 1200 km apart, within 12 hours. A robust team would have identified the mistake and called a few people into a room to brainstorm possible solutions. But because this team had a culture of harmony over respect (ie dealing with issues), the young staffer who had made the mistake rang me from a mobile phone in the carpark in tears, trying to convey the error without any colleagues finding out. Some of this behavior I can attribute to pride and wanting to do a great job, but knowing the team as well as I did, I knew the bigger issue was a fear of admitting they had made a mistake and upsetting the team dynamic.

My role as the leader was to model that behavior and it started with no triangles. I was always willing to step in and resolve an issue between staff—but only after they had tried to sort it out themselves first.

My Antarctic team was fantastic in a crisis. We had to manage the search and rescue following a plane crash and the team worked incredibly well under pressure. We were together for over a year, with no way to get away from each other. So, it was important to build a resilient culture where people would speak up and address issues directly and not let them fester.

My role as the leader was to model that behavior and it started with no triangles. I was always willing to step in and resolve an issue between staff—but only after they had tried to sort it out themselves first. I simply could not be seen, or heard, complaining about one of the team, or head office, for the sake of moaning or letting off steam. It is disrespectful and when the leader does it, that sets the tone for the rest of the team.

We created a strong, adaptable, and high-performing team in Antarctica.

Not because we all loved each other, (heck, I really did not like some of my team at all!) but because we had a culture of integrity and respect. We respected each person and their contribution to the team. Respect trumps harmony, every time.