Taboo triangles

By Charles M. Lines

Charles M. Lines (biography)

Occasionally, asking your collaborators about other people and organisations to involve in the joint work may make you aware of ‘taboo triangles’. These occur when currently collaborating people or organisations feel uncomfortable with or even unable to countenance a certain person, group or organisation being invited into their existing relationships.

It is worth exploring the reasons for and stories behind these warning signs or taboos. Are they valid? Are they erected by traditions that have become unquestioned rules? Are they in reality a barrier which seeks to restrict access to some form of power, influence or sought after resource? Are they based upon assumptions and preconceptions rather than reality?

Above all, are they worth taking the risk of challenging or even ignoring?

If a taboo triangle can be transformed into a permitted or even thoroughly exploited triangle of trust and influence, it can turn a competent collaboration with adequate influence and resources into an outstanding one with strong influence and/or high quality resources.

An example from the sphere of politics concerns the anti-apartheid movement, which gained significant ground when Nelson Mandela and P.W. Botha challenged the taboo triangle involving themselves and the South African Government. For a very long time Mandela’s relationship with the Government of South Africa was faceless and impersonal: the state arrested him, passed judgement on him, imprisoned him and continuously endeavoured to control his life and that of his followers and supporters. By adding a human representative of the State in the form of President Botha, the taboo triangle was transformed and trust was established. Mandela and Botha were able to use these reinforced foundations of trust to influence the Government of South Africa towards majority rule.

Staying with South Africa, when President Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he challenged the taboo triangle formed by bringing together the State, the victims of apartheid and those who had committed crimes against these victims and violated their human rights. This state sanctioned, very open, emotional and difficult dialogue was crucial for building trust and cooperation between historically opposed communities and enabling the establishment of an effective democracy through which the benefits of economic and social development could be realised.

Sometimes taboo triangles can lie hidden within the complex cultures of and interactions between professions, only becoming apparent when someone tries to create a new relationship. For example, creating a triangle of influence between doctors, patients and nursing staff should enhance the care given to the patient. However, traditional professional boundaries, assumptions about functions and leadership roles, and perceptions of the appropriateness of professional interactions between medical and nursing staff can limit the formation and effectiveness of these triangles. Indeed, nursing staff who seek to create them can easily be labelled as trouble makers who do not know their place and are disrespectful of those perceived as higher-up the pecking order of professions. However, where these taboo triangles are successfully challenged, they transform into triangles which create trust, increase the influence of key professionals and enhance the care given to patients.

Taboo triangles are also likely to occur in the field of research. One manifestation concerns the focus of the research, especially when it involves individuals, segments of society or organisations in ways some feel to be inappropriate or uncomfortable, or even totally unacceptable and ‘beyond the pale’. Usually, the reasons for this will involve challenges to predominating cultures, values and beliefs, and assumptions about acceptable behaviour.

Research that has the potential for taboo triangles to exist within it and emerge from it includes research engaging with the following:

  • untouchables in caste system societies
  • women in countries/societies where they are significantly discriminated against and treated as inferior
  • war criminals and criminals generally
  • terrorists, terrorist states, rogue states and dictatorships
  • homosexuals in countries/societies where they are persecuted and discriminated against
  • governments and organisations such as Wiki-Leaks where both parties consider the other to be untrustworthy and ‘dangerous to know’
  • paedophiles and other sex offenders.

Which areas of research can you think of where there may be potential or emerging taboo triangles? How else might taboo triangles manifest in research?

For a full version of this post:
Lines, C. S. (2016). Challenge taboo triangles. (Online):

For more information and relevant references:
Lines, C. S. (2016). Sleeping with the Enemy – Achieving Collaborative Success. 5th Edn. (Online – book available for purchase):

Biography: Charles M. Lines is an independent management consultant and a past Senior Lecturer at the UK Civil Service College, where he was Course Director of its partnership and collaborative working programmes. Since leaving the Civil Service well over a decade ago, he has continued to search out and share best practice in collaborative working.

4 thoughts on “Taboo triangles”

  1. Great stuff – perhaps the most important contribution this piece makes is to “name it.” The practice/problem Charles identifies needs to be named so it can be surfaced and addressed – hopefully “Taboo Triangles” will achieve this.

    Taboos that separate boundaries in differing perspective “lineages” are likely the edge of breakthroughs waiting to happen.

    Could have impact on the problem with irreproducibility in research crisis and the cognitive biases that contribute to researchers selectively closing or opening their mind to particular hypotheses.

    Daniel Kahneman suggests adversarial collaboratoration…

    and Nature article suggests forming a research “team of rivals” as a debiasing technique:


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