How to Repair Broken Relationships at Work


We all have people in our work environment who are completely different than us, who we wouldn’t choose to spend time with and yet we’re are required to work beside day after day. Sometimes, workplace relationships can become so stressful, we are tempted to quit. The bad news is if you leave for another job without dealing with the tension, it’s quite possible you will find yourself in the same scene with the same characters. They just have new names. The good news is even the most strained relationships can be repaired. In fact, going through difficulties can build resilience and cause relationships to grow stronger and deeper. The challenge: it takes hard work.  Our worst fault is our preoccupation with the faults of others.

The ability to navigate relationship stress will absolutely determine how successful you become as a  leader. A huge part of working with people is learning to make your way through a minefield of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Not only do you have to manage this challenge – you have to  lead others successfully through that dangerous territory. Not everyone will make it through unscathed.

It may be news to you that the need for emotional safety is near the top of the list of benefits people require to stay in a job. Feeling sabotaged by unkind co-workers and undermined by unsupportive supervisors is among top reasons people quit. If you’re the boss, you are in demand as a mediator and diplomat. It’s unrealistic to think you can coordinate the efforts of a group of people without navigating conflict.

Conflict is a part of any meaningful relationship. If real communication is taking place, there will be disagreements and mix-ups. The natural response to stress is to pull away from it. Many people use disengagement as their default response to relationship issues. They shut down and choose not to address the problem. That can work if you don’t have a ongoing contact with someone and don’t have to deal with them again. But when it involves people you work with, live with, or connect with on a regular basis, failure to address the problem is painfully problematic.

The first key to resolving relationship stress is to acknowledge it’s worth the effort. The reality is, unresolved conflict nags at you. It is a distraction, at the very least. At work, it costs productivity. Tension is hard to disguise. It not only affects the people directly involved – everyone else feels it too. The experience of the customer or client becomes shadowed by the tense atmosphere. Layers of stress in any organization are communicated non-verbally, even if the words are not spoken. It’s really tough to focus on excellence and productivity in an atmosphere of strife and tension.

Ultimately, the goal is for each member of a team to take responsibility for resolving issues as they pop up instead of letting things fester or running to the boss or Human Resources Director with personality conflict complaints. Ownership is part of developing Emotional Intelligence or EQ, which is said to be more valuable than IQ in professional success. This could be described as “adulting”. It requires courageous communication.

Find the Reset Switch

The first tactic in healing a relationship is to call for a do-over. Forgiveness is the reset switch. People make mistakes, say stupid things, and generally blow it. The easiest way to resist being offended is to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not personal. Maybe there is something going on in their life that created the stress that affected you. Forgiveness is the simplest path back to equilibrium. Simple and easy are certainly not the same, but remember the first premise – the relationship is worth the effort.

Take Responsibility

Consider how you are contributing to the relationship stress and focus on what you can do to diffuse the situation. Seek to understand your role in the tension. You can begin to disrupt the unhealthy patterns by changing the way you respond.  Neurologists say every time you resist acting on your anger and choose to restore yourself to calm, you are rewiring your brain to be calmer and more loving.

 Stop, Leave and Breathe
Don't Speak When You are Angry

Stop: Quit talking. Bite your tongue in mid-sentence if necessary. I’ve often joked that my tongue is significantly shorter than it used to be from all the times I’ve bitten it. There’s a reason we’ve all heard the advice you should count to 10 before you say something you’ll regret.

Leave: Drop the subject until you are cooled down enough to talk about it. Talking at this point is adding fuel to the fire. Note: Social media is the WORST place to vent. Don’t do it.

Breathe: Deep breathing calms you. That’s one reason exercise is good stress management – you flush much needed oxygen throughout your system.

Quit Venting

Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the article “Make Your Enemies Your Allies” says one symptom of a failing relationship is when people bring in third parties to confirm their negative feelings. You might think venting is a healthy way to relieve tension. The caveat of venting is it often results in rehearsing stress rather than disbursing it. The dictionary defines venting  as, “giving free play or expression to an emotion; to vent rage; to release or discharge”. Clearly, venting involves anger. You might think your rant session with a co-worker or friend is a healthy way to let off steam and work through frustration. However, it can serve to further deteriorate the relationship by eroding trust and spreading negativity.

Stop the Crazy Cycle

In the same way that repetition creates communication patterns that bring out the worst in two people, new patterns can be implemented to change that dynamic. Usually, the crazy cycle is triggered by something insignificant and escalates rapidly. It often is related to a deeper issue that has never been resolved.  Take the time to sit down in a neutral environment and talk. We often become so dependent on email and digital communication that we become lazy about utilizing the power of face-to-face conversation to resolve conflict.

Repairing Broken Relationships is a Process

You can hope the person who constantly gets on your nerves gets a personality transplant, but that’s an unrealistic expectation. It’s better to begin to intentionally move to repair the broken areas in the relationship. Relationship dynamics are not set in stone, they are fluid. They can be improved.

When we undermine another person, we ultimately undermine ourselves. My dad was the principal of a high school and served in leadership in many professional arenas. When it’s all said and done he taught me to embrace the truth of what is known as the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


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