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Ideas for Leaders #768

Unbalanced Relationships Hurt Performance, But Don’t Stick Around

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Key Concept

A quantitative analysis of relationships among co-workers shows how negative connections lead to lower performance but eventually work themselves out.

Idea Summary

Triadic relationships are common in the workplace. For example, two employees, Sharon and Mark, may share negative feelings about a third employee, Kathy; Kathy, in return, has negative feelings about both Sharon and Mark. 

An alternative triad involving these individuals is that Sharon and Mark have completely different feelings about Kathy: Sharon is a clear fan, and Mark distrusts Kathy completely. 

According to social psychologists, the first triadic relationship — with the two friends having the same ‘foe’ — is called a ‘balanced’ relationship. There is no inherent need for the relationship to change. Sharon and Mark continue to be friends, and Kathy has her own friends. 

The second triadic relationship, on the other hand, is ‘unbalanced.’ Sharon is caught between her friend Mark and her friend Kathy. This awkward situation is not sustainable for Sharon, who urges her two friends to reconcile. 

Will she succeed? A new field study examines the evolution of unbalanced triadic relationships over time. The data collected also allowed the researchers to measure the impact of unbalanced relationships on performance.

The study is based on a quantitative analysis over a two-year period of the relationships among 66 day-traders employed in a financial services firm. The researchers examined more than one million instant messages between the traders, using the content of the messages and the frequency with which traders communicated to identify the triadic relationships in the firm.

The researchers then used Structural Balance Theory (SBT) to identify which triadic relationships where balanced or unbalanced. According to Structural Balance Theory, triad relationships may be balanced or unbalanced based on four rules of relationships:

  • A. The friend of my friend is my friend.
  • B. The friend of my enemy is my enemy.
  • C. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
  • D. The enemy of my friend is my enemy.

When all four of these rules are not broken by the relationship in the triad, the triad is considered balanced. When at least one rule is broken, the triadic relationship is unbalanced. 

For example, when Sharon finds herself caught between her two friends who dislike each other, we find that from her perspective that Rule (D) — the enemy of my friend is my enemy — is broken. From the perspectives of both Mark and Kathy, Rule (A) and Rule (B) are broken: the friend of their friend Sharon is their enemy, and the friend of their enemy is their friend. In sum, this triadic relationship is very unbalanced.

Through their analysis, the research observed the evolution of the triadic relationships over time and found that for the most part, the relationships evolved into balanced relationships. (Sharon must have successfully brokered a cease-fire between Mark and Kathy.)

That unbalanced relationships eventually work themselves out is good for the firm: the data also shows that individuals involved in unbalanced triads perform at a lower level than individuals on balanced triads. Perhaps the unbalanced relationships distract the individuals from their jobs, the researchers suggest.

Unfortunately, the balancing of unbalanced triads can take time. And some unbalanced triads, the research found, stubbornly persist. 

Business Application

According to Structural Balance Theory, there are 16 different configurations of triadic relationships. Fourteen of the 16 break at least one of the rules. In short, the chance for unbalanced relationships to exist in a workplace is high, and there is not always time to allow them to slowly evolve into a balanced state. Managers would do well to intercede in turbulent triadic relationships, to reduce conflict and keep individuals focused on work and performance.  

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Idea conceived

  • June 2019

Idea posted

  • March 2020

DOI number



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