How to Repair a Fractured Work Relationship & Find a Healthier Way to Work Together

It’s 2:22 am.

You are lying in bed staring at the ceiling thinking through (no – dreading through) the meeting your team has tomorrow with your office nemesis.  You know it’s going to be bumpy, and you are hoping to get an email that he or she needs to reschedule.

You try to trace back to the beginning of this relationship – how did we get off track? Is there any way I can get out of this meeting?  I feel a headache coming on.

Been there?  We certainly have!

Early last summer, I (Kim) took a nasty fall, fracturing my leg just above my ankle.  During my frustrating four month recovery and rehab experience, I learned two lessons about healing a fracture that are pretty enlightening when we apply the same insight to the fracture we face with a broken relationship instead of a broken bone.

Insight #1: Trying to navigate with a fracture takes a lot of energy  

Like a broken limb, a fractured professional relationship zaps your time, attention, and focus and creates ripple effects that reverberate beyond the two individuals. Teams expend mental energy trying to figure out how to get good work done around the fractured relationship. A fractured, professional relationship could become a career stumbling block or even a full-on career derailer.

Typically most people In the office know about the fractured relationship.  In fact, some enjoy discussing the daytime drama to keep things interesting.  These stories can take a life of their own. People begin to look for things, notice when there is tension, discuss how it is getting in the way of productivity.  So anything you do feeds grapevine.   And, like trying to move around with a broken limb, work is harder, and takes longer than it should when skirting around a broken partnership.   Both the drama and the productivity burden take a toll on your leadership brand.

As a leader who can get things done through partnership with others, a reputation for tolerating not so great relationships is likely to keep you from being seen as ready to take on bigger roles.

Insight #2: It takes proactive healing to get strong again

My orthopedist took every opportunity to pound into my head that my fracture would not heal well on its own, and, if I wanted to get back to moving around pain-free and feeling strong, I needed to take proactive steps to help it heal.  The same lesson goes for our weak work partnerships.  In many cases repairing this relationship is as simple as taking the first step to shift that energy. Now, we know that’s easy to suggest and hard to do.  Setting ego aside to muster up that courage is a challenge both personally and professionally. But, trust me, it’s worth swallowing your pride and being the one to take the first step to hit the refresh button on a relationship that is draining your energy. Once you take your blinders off and see that this unhealthy relationship is hurting your colleagues, your business and your career we think you’ll be motivated to take that initial step.

Here are five strategies for addressing a fractured relationship  

  1. Think about what you are doing to contribute to the issue. It takes two to tango, so before approaching your colleague to talk about your relationship, do some honest examination of how you are contributing to the problems.  Ask yourself: What have I said or done that would not have landed well if I were in her shoes?  This will prepare you to make genuine commitments that will put the relationship on a positive path.
  2. Start the conversation: Reach out to your colleague (preferably over phone or in person) and ask if they would be willing to meet to talk about how you are working together.  Then, when you are together start with something like, “I feel that our relationship is not as strong/positive/productive as it could be, and I would like to talk about what we could do to make it better”.  Talk about what you want out of the relationship and ask your colleague what he/she wants out of this relationship. Share your feelings about why it is important to you to get to higher ground together.

Here is a good model to follow:

  • State your desire to improve the relationship so that it is more productive and less stressful for both of you
  • Discuss your part in the issue
  • Discuss what you need/want in the relationship
  • Ask the other person what he/she needs/wants
  • Make some initial agreements and set a time to check in with each other re: how it’s going
  1. Be willing to wipe the slate clean. While in a period of relationship repair, it is important to give your colleague the grace to change vs. keeping score based on what has happened previously.
  2. Deliver on your commitments. While the initial conversation is important it is only the beginning.  What you do after that conversation, how you live up to any commitments you make is what will change the tone of the relationship going forward.
  3. Solicit support. Let other colleagues know that you are working on this relationship and ask them to give you feedback on what they see you doing that is helping or hurting that effort. Doing this can help to diffuse any negative grapevine buzz that has built up.

In taking that first step with these five strategies, you’re not simply healing a fractured relationship. You’re also serving as powerful, courageous advocate for creating a better way to work together.

What you can do right now to start healing the fracture:  

  1. Think about what damage doing nothing/avoiding this is causing – for you, your team, your business’s bottom line.
  2. Write down what you are doing to contribute to the problem with the individual.
  3. Determine what you want/need going forward.
  4. Set up a time to meet, and talk it through!
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