What to do when workplace relationships turn sour
In the wonderful world of work, sometimes relationships fracture. It happens for all kinds of reasons; an argument during a meeting or a comment you made offhand that really rubbed someone the wrong way.
Maybe you had a victory at work that turned out to be a defeat for somebody else. Maybe it is – at least partly – your fault, because you’ve lost your temper and caused someone else to “lose face”.
Work relationships, like trust, take a long time to build and can be broken far too easily. It’s best of course to avoid these types of situations completely.
There’s a whole myriad of things you can do to keep things positive in the first place, but once you’re in a hostile territory, all you can do is to find a way out.
Here are some tips that’ll help you get that angry colleague back on your team.
1. Understand the cause of the problem
Harvey Deutschendorf, author and emotional intelligence expert, advises that empathy is the key to working better with others. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes will yield surprisingly valuable insights into why a situation is the way it is.
Generally, when your working relationship has broken down with another person, there are only going to be two causes. Either:
- You did something to them, or
- You did not do anything and something else is happening in their world to make them act this way.
Try grabbing a pen and paper and write a paragraph describing yourself from the other person’s perspective. Do they see you as a good listener? Might they think you’re arrogant? Do they think you’ve gone out of your way to cut them down, even though you never did?
Or does it have nothing to do with you? Do they work in sales and is the team having a bad year?
Do they see you as a scapegoat or as the major cause of one of their problems? Were you recently promoted ahead of them?
The reason why you and your colleague just cannot interact could be a large, obvious matter or it could be something very simple and subtle. But until you know exactly what’s wrong, you won’t be able to fix it.
2. Work out what you want to achieve
Remember, this colleague doesn’t like you for a reason! Once you’ve worked out what that is, you have to work out what you want the relationship to look like in the future.
Do you want to be best friends with this person? Is that realistic? Or do you just want cordial interactions so you can get the job done?
You need to have a crystal clear goal and purpose in mind when you start patching up a relationship, because if you approach it willy-nilly, it’s akin to walking into a minefield without a metal detector. One wrong step and everything could get a whole lot worse, so you need to be prepared.
When planning this out, Amy Gallo, author of Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work gives this advice:
If your goal is to stick it to the other person or to show them that they’re wrong, think of a better goal. Because most likely… the goal is really something else. It’s to get the project done on time. It’s to meet a tight deadline. It’s to come in under budget.
If you have a handle on this, as well as a plan on what you want to say, you have a real shot at turning things around and, for the time being, at least, getting back onto neutral ground.
3. Do some reading on how to talk to people
The exact way we use words has a dramatic effect on the people around us. For example, if you observe that a friend or colleague is in a bad mood, you could say, “Wow, someone’s grouchy today”, or instead you could say “Hey, how is everything going today? Do you need any support?”
Both of these questions take you in the same direction, but the way you say it is the difference between an axe to the neck or a nice massage.
If you’re going to try to patch things up with a colleague, remember:
- Use questions rather than statements.
- Don’t imply blame or responsibility.
- Keep the outcome you want in mind.
4. Accept that you just can’t get along with everyone – and focus on the job
My first boss, who is a mentor to this day, gave me this advice when I was frustrated by the way I was treated by various colleagues in my first job.
What they’re doing says a lot more about them than it says about you.
Some people, after all, just aren’t so easy to get along with and that’s not necessarily your responsibility. In fact, it’s something you have to accept.
If you plan to stand for something in your work and life, there are going to be people who disagree with you and what you represent.
At times like this, you may just have to accept that this relationship is never going to be lovey-dovey and instead start focusing on your work outcomes. Can you get around this person? Can you make arrangements such that they will agree to provide what you need? Could your manager or another party help you mediate?
The most important thing to do if you want to fix a problem like this is to take responsibility for it, whether or not it’s your fault.
In this case, the other person has already demonstrated that they would be perfectly happy never to speak to you again, so you have to swallow your pride, be prepared to lose a little face of your own, and make the effort to improve things.
Also, keep in mind there is a difference between a broken work relationship which could result in hostility (or being outright ignored!) and a colleague who is bullying or harassing you. That’s a completely different situation and one that requires a very different approach.
You are at work to work, and having productive relationships with all colleagues is tantamount to success in your career, so do everything you can to keep your relationships in good repair.
Christopher Moore is an Australian finance professional with experience working on assignment in six countries. In all that time he’s bound to have made a few enemies! If you feel that his work-life examples resonate with your own, you can let Christopher know by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Thought of the Week articles, click here.