Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Toxic Tester

Written by: on January 26, 2023

While preparing to write the third Syntopical Essay last semester, I was reviewing notes collected from Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve. Chapter Seven, titled Emotional Triangles, caught my attention, and aroused my curiosity. However, due to time constraints, I had to ‘file that one away,’ as my husband would say, so I could return later. So here I am, ready to see what Freidman says about Emotional Triangles.

First, let me explain why I was curious. The cursory review last semester in the chapter was about the emotional triangle between a husband, wife, and mother-in-law. I am trying to learn how to navigate this landscape as a mother-in-law. It is a fine line or tightrope to walk. And it is hard at times. By no means is this a reflection on my daughter-in-law. I must take responsibility for my thoughts and attitudes and learn that I’m not always right or there are other ways of doing things. One of my mantras during this process is that everyone has free will so that I can give everyone, including myself, grace.

But that’s not what intrigued me the most when I went back this time to read more in-depth on Friedman’s assessment of emotional triangles. To begin, he defines emotional triangles as follows “the manner in which relationships between any two people, individual and his or her symptoms, can be a function of an often unseen third person, relationship, or issue between them.”[1] Further, he states on page 218 that there is no such thing as a two-person relationship. Emotional triangles have governing laws and supersede the ‘social science construction of reality and seem to be rooted in protoplasm itself.’[2] According to Friedman, triangles are predictable regardless of gender, race, class, or context, i.e., family or business. Because of this, the level of information and criteria to analyze relationships is different and essential.[3] The five universal laws that emotional triangles follow are:

  • They form out of the discomfort of people with one another
  • They function to preserve themselves and, perversely, oppose all intentions to change them
  • They interlock in a reciprocal self-reinforcing manner
  • They make it difficult for people to modify their thinking and behavior
  • They transmit a system’s stress to its most responsible or most focused member[4]

For leaders, understanding emotional triangles are at the core of stress, health, and overall effectiveness.[5] Lastly, almost every issue a leader will face can be put into the context of an emotional triangle. Consequently, they are the key to becoming self-differentiated.[6]

So how do emotional triangles form? Freidman writes on page 222 that triangles form because of a lack of stability in the relationship, which increases the lack of self-differentiation of the parties involved. The instability also contributes to chronic anxiety in the atmosphere and a lack of clearly defined leadership. The people connected in the emotional triangle create a false sense of intimacy. In some instances, the two form an alliance and begin to scapegoat a third person or issue.[7]

I could continue explaining Friedman’s concept of emotional triangles. Still, I’m going to segway to an article from Psychology Today written by Annette Templeton, Ph.D., titled Taking on the Toxic Triangle. Her article does a great job contextualizing the emotional triangle discussion in a business leadership setting. I found it helpful because Chapter Seven in Failure of Nerve focused more on personal emotional triangles. This article gave me something more concrete to digest. Essentially her article summarizes a “toxic triangle is a perfect storm created by three factors: a destructive leader, susceptible followers, and a conducive environment.”[8] I assume everyone is familiar with or can recall the attributes of a destructive leader. The toxic leader stays in power because of the other two parties in the triangle. According to Dr. Templeton, the susceptible followers are those who are in one of two groups, the “colluders, and conformers.”[9] The “colluders mimic the bad behavior of the bosses, and the conformers are more motivated to keep their position and or power.”[10] A conducive environment is when the organization allows toxicity to exist. C-suite executives are aware but turn a blind eye to the behavior.

While re-reading Friedman and the Psychology Today article, I recalled how an emotional triangle had formed in one of the departments at the community college. A quick backdrop. For the post, I will call the destructive leader, “Toxic Tester.” She set up an extremely convoluted process for signing up adult students to take one or more subject GED tests. Instructors were required to have the students take and pass three practice tests for each subject and then, with unforgiving exactness, complete a subject-designated colored form for each student for each test. What was so traumatizing for everyone was that Toxic Tester had completely fabricated the entire process and requirements, and everyone knew she had made up the rules. She terrorized the whole department. First, she returned the document if the form contained missing or incorrect information. Then, she would send you an email, copying everyone in the entire department, including the dean, highlighting your mistakes. Not only that, but there were times she saw the instructor’s error when the student showed up for testing. Guess what? The student would be sent home in tears and not allowed to test that day because of the made up mistake on the made up form.  Get the picture?

The Toxic Tester was destructive, and the organization allowed it to persist until the person crossed someone in the C-suite in an unrelated matter. There may have been at least one ‘colluder’ in the department, but almost everyone, including myself, was a ‘conformer.’

Friedman states that the only way to break out of an emotional triangle is not to get involved in one in the first place. It requires staying in touch with the other two parties or the issue but working on your ability to self-differentiate and being the non-anxious, well-defined presence.[11] And on this point, Friedman and Dr. Templeton agrees that building self-awareness in leaders shines a light on how their leadership is experienced.[12] However, with the Toxic Tester and the conducive environment we were in, I’m still not sure how I could have been more self-differentiated.  I’m still pondering.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, (New York, Church Publishing, 2017), 218.

[2] Ibid., 218.

[3] Ibid., 218-219.

[4] Ibid., 219.

[5] Ibid., 219.

[6] Ibid., 219-220.

[7] Ibid., 222.

[8] Annette Templeton Ph.D., Taking on the Toxic Triangle, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-leader-within/202008/taking-on-the-toxic-triangle, 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, (New York, Church Publishing, 2017), 234.

[12] Annette Templeton Ph.D., Taking on the Toxic Triangle, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-leader-within/202008/taking-on-the-toxic-triangle, 2020.

About the Author

Audrey Robinson

13 responses to “Toxic Tester”

  1. Kristy Newport says:

    What a thorough analysis of toxic/emotional triangles.
    I often share this concept with my clients on a white board so they can see the different players in the triangle. It is a helpful visual.

    The following is spot on:

    “Friedman states that the only way to break out of an emotional triangle is not to get involved in one in the first place. It requires staying in touch with the other two parties or the issue but working on your ability to self-differentiate and being the non-anxious, well-defined presence”

    Getting pulled into a triangle can happen easily. It sounded like being a “colluder” ended up being a painful spot to be in. I am curious how things are going at your community college now that this triangle has been exposed. I am assuming the Toxic Tester was confronted….maybe not.

    I pray things with your daughter in law are going well. Praying you might remain self-differientiated!

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Thank you for your prayers and words of encouragement.

      The Toxic Tester was often confronted by various people in the department but it didn’t help because the dean refused to step in. I believe she did retire because of the incident she was involved in with the person in the C-suite. I can assure you it was a grand day at the school!

  2. Tonette Kellett says:


    What a wonderful blog post on emotional triangles, particularly at the business level. I loved the article you cross-referenced. It added so much to what Friedman had written in his book on the matter.

    I once had a very toxic principal here on the Choctaw Indian Reservation. Thankfully she only lasted one year, but oh! That year was just awful! I actually looked for other employment in the spring thinking she might be allowed to stay. I knew I couldn’t take it another year. I can definitely relate to the things you have written.

    Extremely well done!

  3. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Audrey, Thank you so much for your post! The topic of emotional triangles seems to be something that everyone can relate to at home or at work. I appreciate the details you brought into the conversation through Templeton’s article and your own personal story. I’m pondering, at the moment, an emotional triangle we had in our former neighborhood. For seventeen years, it was difficult to navigate. I’m thankful for your thoughts which challenge me to identify current emotional triangles and think carefully of how I can reroute and navigate in healthy ways. Your last paragraph offers great direction on exiting the triangles or even better, not entering them in the first place. As you noted, it’s some much easier said than done!

    Grateful for your words!

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Emotional triangles provide a deeper insight or perspective into how we relate to others and situations. Now I find myself reviewing every conversation and asking myself if this is an emotional triangle. I have to laugh though because I may be taking it to the extreme.

  4. Audrey – I also explored emotional triangles in this round of reading Friedman! I find it fascinating and very helpful. If it makes you feel better, it’s way easier to identify triangles in other people’s relationships than it is to do in our own – that’s why coaching is so valuable. I pray that God keeps revealing new insights to you as you ponder the situations you shared in terms of emotional triangles.

  5. Audrey Robinson says:

    Thanks, Laura. I think there is a lot to unpack with the triangles. It is definitively easier to see what is going on in other people’s lives versus your own.

    Thank you for your prayers as well.

  6. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Thank you for a great analysis of emotional triangles. You made me think of how toxic that can be in the workplace. The adage is that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses, which looks like something you contemplated doing. In retrospect, would you have handled the situation differently, or how would you approach the situation if you have another “toxic tester”?

  7. mm Shonell Dillon says:

    Great post. How have you navigated other emotional triangles since this event? Do you think what you have learned from that event (if any) could have helped you with the ‘toxic tester”?

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      If I understand your question, I have found myself participating in other triangles. However, since reading Friedman’s work on the emotional triangles I am trying to be more aware and not be so quick to join in these triangles.

  8. Alana Hayes says:


    The number of levels to this post so fascinating. You really put in a lot of time on it!

    Keeping in mind from your post above where you stated that triangles are formed from a lack of stability in the relationship…..How do you think that being self-differentiated and aware of how your leadership is experienced can help a leader avoid being part of an emotional triangle? Can it? Whew… Slippery slope!

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      I think being self-differentiated does not exclude one from getting involved in an emotional triangle – after all some habits are hard to break. The difference for me is now I am aware and I can begin to take steps to not become so engulfed in whatever the issue is; and secondly, to pray for wisdom to self-differentiate. This could be in the form of not participating, limited participation, or in whatever way the Holy Spirit leads. Before, I just jumped in emotionally.

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