One of the most common workplaces issues I’m asked to help resolve is around mending and rebuilding workplace relationships. In one case, I helped a dysfunctional team become…well…less dysfunctional. And by dysfunctional, I mean people didn’t even talk to each other. At all. The team was in such disarray that they had seen 12 managers come and go in less than 10 years. In another case, I’ve been coaching a senior executive on rebuilding her relationships with her peers so that she feels less isolated and lonely.
These are extreme cases. However, the breaking down of relationships started somewhere and in my experience the root-cause can often be the most innocuous thing. A throwaway comment, a failure to give help, a snappy reply, going to lunch with some colleagues but not others can slowly but surely degenerate into something bigger and worse if left unchecked.
Here are five things you can do if you need to mend a workplace relationship:
#1 PUT YOURSELF IN THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES
This can be a tough thing to do but if you give it a proper go then it can offer helpful insights. For example, one coaching client I worked with felt lonely and unsupported by her peers, one in particular. When I asked my client to describe this particular peer, she used quite negative and disrespectful language. Then, through some role-playing where my client played the part of her peer, she gained insight that her peer was probably feeling as vulnerable as my client was. In addition, my client was irked that her peer didn’t open up to her. However, through the role play, my client had the realisation that her peer was never going to open up to her if she was giving off a vibe that said “I don’t like you and I don’t respect you”. My client wanted support and respect but wasn’t necessarily offering that in kind. This activity taps into the habit of ‘Seek to understand before you can be understood’ from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
#2 BREAK THE NEGATIVE THINKING CYCLE
Some of you may be familiar with the concept of confirmation bias – where we seek information that confirms our ideas, decisions or assumptions. One manager I worked with had got stuck in negative thinking cycle, fuelled by confirmation bias, in relation to one of his direct reports. The relationship was broken, unproductive and causing both parties sleepless nights. Literally. By asking the manager questions about the history of the relationship and by asking them to describe their direct report, we identified that everything they said was about what was wrong. The language was all geared toward the negative and in turn, was adding to the manager’s anxiety. This meant that everything they spotted in relation to their direct report was all the negative stuff. This only served to validate the manager’s feelings which, in turn, made them more anxious and ultimately, wound them up before a 121 with the person. And yes, you’ve guessed it – those 121s would go horribly. More often than not they would become confrontational, which then served to confirm the manager’s thoughts about the direct person. And so on.
To break this cycle, I suggested the manager deliberately and consciously look for positive things. It didn’t matter how small. This particular manager was motivated by competition so I set them the challenge of finding a minimum of 20 positive acts over a four week period. When we next met, the manager had smashed that target and found 58 things. The clincher was the manager stating, “The more positive things I noticed the easier it became to spot positive things”. The impact of this was that the manager found they felt less anxious about 121s and interactions with the person. Instead, they found that gradually the energy changed between them to one that was more positive and respectful.
#3 IDENTIFY THE SMALLEST STEP YOU ARE PREPARED TO MAKE
It can feel incredibly overwhelming about where to start when relationships have broken down, particularly to the point where they are dysfunctional and you dread going in to work. Key is to break the problem and possible solutions down into their smallest parts. For example, one team I worked with identified the three main relationship problems they wanted to resolve. The team was then split in to three sub-groups and tasked with developing a ‘solution tree’.
One of the problem statements was ‘How to make time for people when we’re so busy’. The sub-group working on this problem statement came up with different ideas, such as a 10-minute coffee and doughnut break on a Friday afternoon. Each idea, such as this one, was then broken down further into steps. So for the 10-minute coffee and doughnut break on a Friday, steps included booking it into everyone’s diary; everyone responding to the invite; buying nice coffee; buying the doughnuts; booking a space somewhere else in the building. Each member of the sub-group then took one of the actions. Not only did this break things down in to manageable chunks, it also shared responsibility across the whole team for rebuilding relationships. And while this particular solution might seem trite to some readers, don’t underestimate the power of food to help forge connections.
#4 GET OUTSIDE SUPPORT
There is something powerful about having an objective outsider provide a different perspective. They can be objective and non-judgemental in a way that those who are deep in the middle of the relationship issues can’t. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an external facilitator, coach or consultant. Not everyone can afford that. It might be a member of your HR/OD team, if you have one. Failing that, it could be a manager from a different part of your organisation. Or a peer from your network, who might work in a different organisation. Key is that whoever you ask to support you doesn’t ‘take sides’. They should be compassionate, curious and thoughtful – taking care to support and challenge all the people involved in the situation.
#5 LOOK FOR THINGS IN COMMON RATHER THAN DIFFERENCE
This activity can have such a positive impact on relationships. For the team I mentioned at the start – who literally didn’t talk to each other, and who had gone through so many managers – this activity around taking the time to find out a bit more about each other made a fundamental difference. This activity was done in pairs and because it was a sunny day, I encouraged people to go for a walk or sit in the park outside. I started them off with some Appreciative Inquiry based questions, to help get the conversations going but advised that they could add more questions if they wished.
The aim was simply to find out more about each other – including how they’d got to where they were today career-wise; what they valued at work; their proudest moment outside of work. They were a fairly introverted group of people underpinned by resentment so I was realistic in how far they’d get in these paired discussions. First I was surprised at the level of energy when people came back. There was lots of talking as people came back into the room and some laughter. Every pair managed to identify a minimum of three things they had in common. When we heard from everyone, we used the things in common to help build some ways of working for the team which they are still using now. They also use this conversation-based activity to help induct new team members – something they would never have even dreamed of doing before.
Just as building relationships takes time, mending broken relationships can take even longer.
At the heart of all these activities are three essentials. The first is a preparedness to make the effort. Second is putting aside enough regular time to work on the relationship(s). And third, having the appropriate space (physical and mental) to work through difficult issues in a safe way.
I hope you found this post useful. If you have examples of approaches that have helped you mend a broken work relationship why not share in the comments box below? That way other readers can benefit from your experience.
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Great article thanks. In my experience in resolving disputes and broken workplace relationship, is about looking for that common ground, or the acknowledgement of a behaviour that was a cause of the dispute. By people talking to each other in a safe, respectful and structured way it is amazing how they discover the “gem or nugget” that can lead to a breakthrough in the relationship.