For a long time there had been the assumption that dyads constituent the basis of teams. But I believe there is much stronger evidence that triads are better building blocks for high performing teams.
Triadic structures can be found almost in every aspect of life. They seem to be playing a fundamental organisational and structural role. For instance, many world philosophies, myths, and religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) have triadic structures of deities at their core. In music theory, triads form the basis for almost every chord and tonal harmony. Furthermore, in team sports the triadic structure is very common in organising players (see here my article on the triangle offence in basketball). In social networks, people have the tendency to form triads and use it as a basis to expand their network.
Even in Chemistry there is Dobereiner’s law of triads. Dobereiner was the first to discover that several groups of three chemical elements had similar chemical properties. Even more interestingly he discovered that the atomic weight of the middle element in these triads was roughly the average of those of the other two. This later formed the basis for Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements.
It is obvious that there is something almost mystical about triadic structures. From one hand they can be found in nature as the basic structure of elements at an atomic level while on the other hand humans had been using triadic structures intuitively long before they were observed in nature. It is as if there is a deeper, almost natural dynamic that makes triads the perfect building block for harmony, like it does in music.
Triads as building blocks for high performing teams
Personally, I realised the power of triads in basketball and how players interact. This is what originally led me to explore the idea of triads as building blocks for high performing teams. However, I never expected to discover how universal this concept is.
In my previous article I briefly discussed about triads. How they interact, the different types of links between them, and how triads come together to form wider social networks. Here I will explain in more detail why triads are a better building block for teams compared to dyads or larger structures.
Why dyads are not the right building blocks for high performing teams
Although there has been a lot of research on dyads, this has been carried out almost independently from research on groups. However, there are still people who argue that dyads can be also considered a team. As such, it seems that there is still no clear consensus amongst social scientists on whether dyads are groups.
Professor of Psychology, Richard L. Moreland, argues that dyads are not really groups. According to him, dyads form and dissolve more quickly than groups, they do not demonstrate some key group phenomena and they are less stable as they involve much stronger emotions than groups.
Georg Simmel, who more than a century ago was the first to study the size of groups and compare dyads with triads, reached to a similar conclusion. In 1908 Georg Simmel published his famous article the “Treatise on the Triad”, examining both the opportunities and limitations of triads.
In his work, Georg Simmel claimed that a dyad is a special situation where one person can only depend on the other one and no-one else. Unlike with triads or bigger groups, dyads are often confronted with the all or nothing question. In dyads usually people are more open to each other and the relation between two persons has a tendency to be more intimate.
Also, in a dyad it is not easy to keep the other person in a desired distance or act as the leader, neither there is majority to resolve disagreements. So, they are more prone to conflict, and there is greater individualisation in the persons involved. As such it is almost impossible to establish a team culture.
The power of triads
The Dutch economist Bart Nooteboom has done a detailed analysis of Simmel’s work. He writes that social networks were always seen as aggregation of dyads. However, he says that in the last 30 years many experts have embraced the importance of triads, and the role that third parties play in a relationship.
There is a number of important points that demonstrate that triads are much better building blocks for high performing teams than dyads.
Third party as a balancing force
The presence of a third person in a relationship changes dramatically the dynamics. Apart from the direct relationship of two parties there is additionally an indirect relationship through their common link to the third party. This additional indirect relationship can either strengthen the direct one or disturb it.
For instance, the arrival of a child in a marriage can strengthen the relationship of the couple as the parents develop a new indirect bond between them through their child. In a sense the third person acts as an intermediary who can unite and close the circle.
However, the third party might be an intruder and that divides the other two. For instance, the third party in a love triangle is an intruder that can lead to a divorce. Another example is the attempts of politicians at splitting up parliaments in order to prevent the rise of inconvenient majorities. This follows the widely popular technique of divide and rule.
Third party as a mediator
A third person is key in diffusing conflict and acting as a non-partisan between the other two. In fact, at any one time any of the three parties in a triad can act as a mediator for the other two, as the relationships in the triad go through continuous ebbs and flows. The presence of an impartial mediator guarantees the longevity of the group. However, there might be cases where two of the three parties unite into one. In such a case, the triad goes back to being a dyad and the dynamics change once again.
I mentioned earlier that in dyads people often share openly how they feel in great intensity. As such, there are peculiar tensions, which in a way help maintain the dyad’s status quo. However, the presence of a third party brings a sense of balance, and helps reduce the emotional content. It forces the other two parties to present their issues in more objective terms and with less passion. Despite this, there might still be fluctuating moods, but there is less emotional intensity.
Another strong point of triads is the ability to create feedback loops. This is not possible with dyads. The presence of a third person creates the ability to give impartial feedback on what the other two are discussing. There is even a relevant feedback and advice technique that has been developed for triads, called Troika Consulting. This is one of the 33 liberating structures, which are a collection of microstructures used to facilitate the interaction of groups in an engaging and inclusive manner.
Troika Consulting comprises of three people. One of them acts as the ‘client’ and the other two as the ‘consultants’. The client asks for help to discover everyday solutions, and then gets advice immediately from the other two. This continues in quick round-robing “consultations” until everyone has gotten advice from everyone else.
In his article “TRIADS: Self-organizing structures that create value“, Douglas A. Saarel mentions that a major surgical products company established “Group Process Triangles”, in order to improve interpersonal and group communications. Each triangle consisted of three executives. Their role was to give or receive feedback from the other two. This helped them identify and overcome biases, become more effective, and solve complicated issues.
Triads at the core of high performing teams
What is the smallest group of people that we can call a team? This is a very frequent question. As mentioned in my previous article, a key characteristic of social networks is the tendency of actors (people, groups or organisations) to form closed triads. As Tsvetovat, M, & Kouznetsov claim, triadic structures are the most stable over time and require less effort to maintain compared to dyads or larger structures.
Even more interestingly, although adding a third party in a dyad completely transforms the dynamics; the addition of more people in a triad doesn’t modify the team significantly. This means that triads not only are more stable but can also define the team dynamics and culture. As such, triads create their own local culture by developing shared jargon, rules and stories, and when others join the triad, there is already an established team culture.
In my article here I have suggested that the ideal team size should be between 3 and 5 people. This allows teams to have a minimum amount of skills and knowledge, be self-organising and work in triads.
Triads are composed of multi-skilled individuals that can act as a single entity and solve daily problems at work. As such, triads can be described as complex adaptive systems, where self-organisation emerges naturally. By interacting with each other and their environment triad members can produce complex, emergent behaviours. Although, they don’t have a formal leader and structure, leadership, innovation, and agility emerge through the interaction of its members. Self-organising triads develop their own culture creating an entity which is greater than the sum of its individuals.
This is why I believe that triads are the fundamental building blocks for high performing teams.
NOOTEBOOM, B. A. R. T. (2006) “Simmel’s Treatise on the Triad (1908),” Journal of Institutional Economics. Cambridge University Press, 2(3), pp. 365–383. doi: 10.1017/S1744137406000452.
Saarel, D.A. (1995), “TRIADS: Self‐organizing structures that create value”, Planning Review, Vol. 23 No. 4, pp. 20-25. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb054515