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  • Miriam Maher

Fixing a Work Relationship Gone Sour

Sometimes you get stuck in a rut with someone at work — a boss, a coworker, a direct report. Perhaps there’s bad blood between you or you simply haven’t been getting along. What can you do to turn the relationship around? Is it possible to start anew?

What the Experts Say

The good news is that even some of the most strained relationships can be repaired. In fact, a negative relationship turned positive can be a very strong one. “Going through difficult experiences can be the makings of the strongest, most resilient relationships,” says Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and author of the HBR article, “Emotional Agility.” The bad news is that fixing a relationship takes serious effort. “Most people just lower their expectations because it’s easier than dealing with the real issues at hand,” says Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the HBR article, “Make Your Enemies Your Allies.” But, he says, the hard work is often worth it, especially in a work environment where productivity and performance are at stake. Here’s how to transform a work relationship that’s turned sour.

Recognize what’s happening

Relationships in need of repair don’t all look alike. David says there are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to relationship problems. You may be in a rut (what she calls “over-competent”) where you don’t go beyond the, “Hello, how are you?” every day. Or on the other side of things, you may be what she calls “over-challenged,” where “you’re always walking on egg shells or constantly not seeing eye to eye.” Take note of what’s happening in your relationship so you know what needs work. “What I sometimes see is a lack of information sharing, or both parties start to keep track of reciprocation. Another symptom of a failing relationship is that people will bring in third parties to confirm their suspicions about the other person,” says Uzzi.

Give up being right Getting a relationship with a coworker back on track may require that you put your ego away. “We often get stuck in our heads about who’s wrong and who’s right. And when you’re hooked on the idea that you’re right, you can’t start to repair the relationship because the issue of who’s at fault becomes a distraction,” says David. To satisfy this need to be right while not letting it affect how you interact with the person, David suggests “imagining the other person with a big, fat sticker on his back that says, ‘I’m wrong.’” Then you can just focus on moving the relationship forward.

Look forward, not back Resist your tendency to analyze every detail of what’s happened in your relationship. Who said what? Why did they say it? This isn’t productive. “Lots of people think that it’s only by understanding the past that we get beyond it. But what you focus on is what grows,” David says. So think about what’s worked well previously, what you like about the person, and what you want from the relationship. “Take a solution-focused approach, not a diagnostic one,” she says.

See the other person’s perspective Empathy is the foundation of healthy work relationships. David suggests you make room for emotions like curiosity about and compassion for your coworker by asking yourself a series of questions: “How does she see things? Is he feeling embarrassed, put upon, misjudged, or misunderstood?” But don’t assume you can just guess how the other person feels. You need to ask, too. “What seems unquestionable to one person might be totally different from the other person’s perspective,” says David.

Find neutral ground — literally and figuratively When you approach the other person, be sure it’s on neutral territory — not at one of your desks. Instead, go out for lunch or coffee. The physical place is important but so is the emotional one. Instead of debating what went wrong and who is at fault, try to create a space where you’re aligned. It can be helpful to focus on the bigger picture — a common goal you share or a larger entity that you’re both subjected to (think: The Man). “You’ll then begin to build a sense that you’re in it together,” Uzzi says.

But don’t expect the relationship to change overnight. David explains, “The real shifts in relationships happen less in those watershed moments and more in your everyday actions.” Sitting down and talking is helpful “but that’s not where the work really happens. It’s more subtle than that.” Make an effort to change the tone of your everyday interactions.

Reestablish trust and reciprocity Don’t try to convince the other person that you’re trustworthy with rational arguments. Show it instead. One smart way, Uzzi says, is to “offer things to the other person without asking for anything in return,” he says. This will activate the law of reciprocity and restore the give-and-take of your previous relationship. But don’t verbalize what’s taking place. “That will get you into the tight accounting system of who’s doing what for whom,” warns Uzzi. And be sure to keep your word. “Being true to the things you’ve offered will continue to deepen the relationship and make sure it doesn’t slip back into mistrust,” he says.

Involve other people Chances are when the relationship went sour, you turned to other people for advice and commiseration. Your attempts to repair the relationship won’t be successful if those people aren’t involved. “Bad relationships regularly involve third parties and you need to get them on board to repair it and keep it healthy,” says Uzzi. Explain to your confidantes that you’re working on the relationship and that you’d appreciate their support in making it work.

Principles to Remember


Restore trust by offering your coworker something he wants or needsTalk about your relationship on neutral groundMake subtle shifts in how you act toward your colleague — this is where the real change happens


Get stuck on who’s right and who’s wrong — focus on moving the relationship forwardAssume that things will change immediately ­— repairing relationships can take timeForget to involve people in your network who may have heard you complain about the other person

Case study#1: Find a common purpose Rachel Levitt* had an ongoing conflict with her coworker, Pia*. At the consultancy where they worked, it was Rachel’s job to sell projects to clients, but it was Pia’s role as the business director to vet the sales proposals and pricing. Pia regularly increased the prices that Rachel was pitching and as a result, Rachel lost potential sales.

Because she didn’t know Pia personally (she had only met her once at a team retreat), she went to her boss, the regional manager. “She told me that she trusted Pia’s judgment implicitly and that I just had to find clients who were willing to pay the premium price,” she says.

The circumstances were starting to affect Rachel’s morale not to mention her sales performance. One day after getting an email that she’d lost yet another potential sale, she called Pia up. Rather than criticize her, she explained the impact the situation was having on her: “I wanted to let her know that I really couldn’t keep working like this, bringing in clients and losing them again and again.” Pia was receptive to what she had to say: “She heard me out and said she wasn’t aware of how she was coming across.” It turned out that Pia was also frustrated by the lack of sales and her performance too was being affected. “This gave us a common purpose to address,” Rachel says. So the two women then switched into problem-solving mode. “She taught me how she did the pricing and we reached a compromise on what could be quoted,” she says.

Pia and Rachel ended up closing several big deals working together. “We weren’t best buds but we didn’t have any further disagreements either,” she says. Both women eventually left the company but they still keep in touch.

*Not their real names

Case study #2: Choose a neutral environment While Zachary Schaefer was

finishing his PhD in Communications at Texas A&M, he took a job teaching classes at a community college in Central Texas. At first, he got along well with the woman who ran the department, but soon their relationship grew tense. “We had very different pedagogical approaches,” he says. “They were teaching public speaking by reading off PowerPoints and I didn’t want to use PowerPoint at all.”

One day, after leading a three-hour class, he stopped by her office and tried to explain how he was feeling. “I told her about my issues and she didn’t like what I had to say. But it was bad timing and a poor choice of location. It was 9pm at night and I was already in a pretty negative mood,” he says. They continued to snap at each other over email and in faculty meetings.

Finally, Zachary decided that he wanted things to change. “I knew I would need to acknowledge how I was contributing to the situation,” he says. But he decided to do it differently this time. “I said let’s go off campus and get a glass of wine or a cup of coffee,” he says. Choosing a neutral environment changed everything: “We were able to take off our professional masks and build some true rapport.”

Zachary explained how he was feeling and asked her how she was seeing the situation. She explained that he was shaking things up and that it had upset people — including her. “We had made some assumptions about each other that weren’t true,” he says. “She assumed I was arrogant and I assumed she was trying to micromanage me. But she really wasn’t. She was doing her job.” He told her that he was not trying to tell her how to run the department but he wanted freedom to teach his class as he saw fit. “We left that meeting understanding that we have different ways of doing things but that we both get them done effectively,” he says.

The working relationship improved and he worked at the college for several years after that. Some of their colleagues even commented on how the two of them had been able to turn things around.

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