HBR: How to repair a troubled office relationship

Seven steps to a better workplace

The Harvard Business Review contributing editor Amy Gallo explains how to repair strained workplace relationships and how the most difficult experiences can lead to the "strongest, most resilient relationships."

According to Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, even the most strained relationships can be turned around, but fixing such relationships can take a lot of work. Brian Uzzi of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management says the most common problem with mending office relationships is that most people lower their expectations "because it's easier than dealing with the real issues at hand." However, David says, by taking several key steps, transforming a workplace relationship is possible.

  • Recognize what's happening. David says there are "two ends of the spectrum" when it comes to relationship issues: "over-competent," where you keep interaction to a minimum, and "over-challenged," where two individuals are constantly walking on egg shells around one another. In order to begin repairing the issues, both parties must determine what is happening in the relationship so he or she knows what needs fixing.

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  • Give up the need to be right. According to David, "Getting a relationship with a coworker back on track may require you put your ego away." She says it is important to not focus on fault, which "becomes a distraction," and instead concentrate on moving the relationship forward.

  • Look for a 'solution-based approach, not a diagnostic one.' In that same vein, David recommends resist the urge to analyze every detail of what has happened in the past. Instead, employees should focus on what they previously liked about a coworker and what they'd like to get out the relationship.
  • Try to consider the other person's perspective. Empathy and compassion for another person are integral parts of any relationship. To develop such feelings about a coworker, David recommends considering questions like, "How does she see things?" and "Is he feeling embarrassed, put upon, misjudged, or misunderstood?"

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  • Talk about the relationship in 'neutral' territory. David says both parties should talk on "neutral ground" and focus on the bigger picture, recognizing that the relationship will not change overnight. She says a talk is a good start, but both parties should make an effort to "change the tone" of their everyday actions.
  • Reestablish trust and reciprocity. David says it is important to restore the "give-and-take" of the previous relationship by offering things to the other person without expecting anything in return.

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  • Involve other people. Lastly, David says it is important to involve other people who have been impacted by the strained relationship, such as people that offered advice or commiseration (Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 8/20). 

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