Fixing Fractured Workplace Relationships

Life on the job can be enjoyable and peaceful, even happy when workplace relationships function smoothly. But if problems arise between ourselves and others at work the workplace becomes a source of irritation, dismay and tension. When this happens, it may be tempting to lie low until the trouble blows over. But when our interactions with colleagues, co-workers or the boss sour, it’s best to act as soon as possible to correct the situation.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Human nature being what it is, people allow issues to fester rather than confronting them with the goal of a resolution. Relationships that hit a rough patch need attention just as our physical bodies need care when injured. Carrying on with business as usual leads to stress and lost productivity.

When issues between workmates go unresolved, health concerns and poor performance may arise. Unresolved interpersonal difficulties cause sleeplessness, headaches, gastro-intestinal problems and preoccupation with the soured relationship. Workers are distracted, fatigued and disengaged with the job. They dread it. Absenteeism and sick days result.

One reason workers allow interpersonal problems to go unaddressed is a lack of assertiveness. Workers think discussing what they need and want from others may burden or disappoint their co-worker, cause disapproval, or make its way up to more senior levels, where they fear consequences. So they avoid the topic.

For example, something as simple as a colleague failing to finish paper work in a timely fashion so a job can be completed can become a source of aggravation if the issue isn’t discussed. When this occurs, people begin to add negative intent to the co-worker’s reasons for procrastination (he’s doing it on purpose to make me look bad) or denigrating the individual’s personality (he’s so lazy!).

This signals things have gone too far – the issue is becoming bigger that the original problem and the danger of further relationship breakdown is real. Instead of allowing things to run along a destructive path, timely intervention is warranted.

A second way that interpersonal work difficulties become entrenched is due to a failure to get the relationship back on track when things go awry. Sometimes, even when co-workers are up front about what they need, the relationship can derail.

But once again, a sound intervention can get a floundering relationship back on its feet. There are two means to handling difficult interpersonal situations at work. The first is ensuring relational success by being assertive and the second is to handle fraught relations through the communication skill of immediacy (talking directly to a co-worker about the state of the relationship).

Assertiveness helps keeps relationships on an even keel. Letting co-workers know what you need and why is key. At times, it can be difficult to let colleagues know how they are affecting you – many find this makes them feel vulnerable. They worry that if the co-worker knows they have a negative effect on them, they’ll take advantage of the information. Looking weak at work or being vulnerable is to be avoided at all costs given this mindset.

However, if someone knows that you feel let down when their paper work is late and that you understand it’s a struggle for them to complete boring tasks, the chances are higher that the individual will make an attempt to change their behaviour. Also, it may be that your colleague didn’t know that the lateness was an issue.

Assertiveness requires the ability to be self aware, to be in touch with how you feel, and what you think and need. Many times people have turned down or tuned out their emotions. Practicing listening to how you feel and what you want is important. Next, assertiveness requires empathy. When we talk to others about what we need, we can’t be one sided. We need to acknowledge what the other is thinking or feeling in order to begin to work things out. For example, the person’s co-worker may be late with his paperwork because he finds the task tedious. He’s a sales guy and much prefers spending time with people than spreadsheets. In fact, he finds time spent alone in front of a computer depressing.

Once you understand your co-worker’s possible reason for frustrating you, a conversation with him is more likely to net a resolution. At the same time, you need to be aware of what you are feeling. It may be frustration, a sense of being let down or worry about how being behind at your job will affect your performance review, bonus or promotion. By tuning into your emotions and by considering the other person’s feelings too, you are increasing the likelihood of a successful conversation with your colleague.

Finally, you have to ask for what you need. You must hone in on what you’d like to ask for from your colleague. It may be that he tells you when he can’t make a deadline, it may be you need him to be on time no matter what or you might want him to give the task to someone else to complete on his behalf.

Once you have considered how you feel, as well as how he might feel and what you need, you are ready to talk to him.

The general rule for an assertive conversation is to begin with a comment about how you feel as in, ” I feel let down when you are late getting the paperwork back to me”. Next , add a comment about what you believe the other person may be experiencing: “I can understand you might be behind with the paperwork because it can be a real pain to complete especially if we’ve had a really busy month”.

Finally, you can indicate what you need from the other person- “I’d like it if you could get me the paperwork by the 20th of the month, if you are really swamped and it looks difficult, I’d appreciate a call and we can figure out how to get it done together, what do you think?”

By dealing as early as you can with problems between you and others at work you can reduce the likelihood of having festering issues that defy resolution and once again go back to enjoying your job.

In our next column, we will discuss how to get a derailed workplace relationship back on track using immediacy.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a workplace psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services, an organizational coaching, training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  She can be contacted at:

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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