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Mend Broken Work Relationships

Avoid an ever-increasing problem that can drain your productivity and wear you out emotionally and physically

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Maybe you have a broken leg at work.

I don't mean the physical kind; the type where you see a doctor and try to stay off of it for a while. That kind will heal in a few weeks all by itself.  I mean the broken relationship kind;  the type that's much harder to heal, keeps you awake at night and can end up making you unproductive for years if it isn't fixed.

But a broken relationship at work is a lot like a broken leg. It can make you avoid certain places or take a different route in and out of your office.  It can dominate your conversations with friends and make your spouse wish you would just shut up about it. Broken work relationships make you less productive and tempt you to overdo the "pain medication," despite how dangerous you know that is.

Unfortunately, the risks of not treating your broken relationship are also like having a broken leg. It can become an ever-increasing problem or infection. It might change how you act in the future, making you a bit gun-shy and eager to avoid another broken leg. The broken relationship might even wear you out emotionally and physically, so much so that you just want to escape and maybe accept any offer to change jobs -- even for less pay!

You might think that it makes sense to go back and examine how your leg or relationship became so broken. Thoughts like "What did I do so wrong?" and "How could this happen to me?" might float through your head. But how it broke isn't nearly as important as how you respond.

Uncomfortable Work
So, what can you do about your broken relationship at work?  Is there a way to avoid being one of those martyrs who in some weird way seems to enjoy having a broken relationship?  Fortunately, there is. But, like a broken leg, it will take some uncomfortable work.

  1. Choose to heal: The first thing that must be done is to approach the situation correctly. You have to make a choice: is this thing going to heal and get better or is it going to be a pain forever?  This choice is completely under your control and it really matters which option you choose. For example, martyrs won't listen to any advice, even from professionals. They don't believe the relationship will get any better so they won't try anything. They stick to complaining as their only "therapy." But healers work toward a solution. They try things, they ask for advice. They refuse to accept that the future has to look like the present. They believe.
  2. Avoid "compensatory" behaviors  or work-arounds: For example, those who don't believe a relationship will get any better start to work around it. In medicine, such activities are called "compensatory behaviors" because the patient is "compensating" for the deficient limb or process. This can be a problem; first, because it puts extra strain on the other parts of someone's life. Long-term problems can develop in those relationships that have to bear the extra weight. Second, compensating behaviors don't allow the original broken relationship to fully heal. They simply hide it.
  3. Use crutches and other aids temporarily: On the other hand, doctors do prescribe crutches and other aids when damage initially occurs. It is not unreasonable to keep weight off a relationship for a bit while the anger subsides. But importantly, doctors prescribe crutches so you can still function normally -- not so you can avoid putting any and all weight on the foot. In real life, we still have to function even with a broken relationship. The proper temporary aids, like having a third coworker present, or alerting a boss to keep things operating smoothly, are allowable -- but only temporarily, and only in extreme situations. Other temporary aids might include compliments and extra "thank yous." Think of these as adding ointments or icy-hot to a broken leg. They don't really heal it from the inside, but they do ease the pain and make it more bearable while the real work of healing is being done.
  4. Put it up at night: Everyone knows that a medical doctor will recommend putting a broken leg up at night. This helps it heal and can be thought of as "draining the blood out of it."  The same thing applies to broken relationships -- you need to drain the blood out of them occasionally.  Many a close friend and spouse have wished a loved one would put a broken relationship out of mind.  Stop picking at the wound.  If you wish, think of it as allowing your subconscious to work on the problem while your conscious self gets some time off. Either way, put it up at night. It will actually heal better if you don't obsess and worry it constantly.
  5. Exercise it as soon as you can: Eventually, every broken relationship, like a broken leg, demands exercise and real use. This is the part that most people are afraid of. What if it hurts? What if it doesn't feel exactly like it did before it was broken? One piece of advice is to go slow and gentle at first, listening for when you might be pushing too hard and then easing up a little. But every doctor knows waiting too long is a much more common mistake than jumping in too early. Avoiding pain is a built-in characteristic of all humans. But there's a reason going "outside our comfort zone" is such a common expression in management and business. The difference between success and failure is sometimes just the difference between those who succumb to our natural human tendencies and those who climb above them.
  6. The most important ingredient -- trust: Did you know that a healed broken bone is often stronger than the original bone?  It's true!  The biological processes that stitch bone back together produce stronger bones than the originals. Is that possible with your broken relationship? Actually, it is. Consider: in our life, accidents happen; miscommunications, misinterpretations. Sometimes, people will misbehave around us for reasons we could not possibly fathom because we are truly not inside their heads, so bumped and bruised relationships are inevitable. But fundamentally, people are to some degree a little bit scared and insecure. They are worried other people won't like them or will somehow "be out to get them." They are also worried that they can't predict what other people will do. Somehow bad things will come their way, unexpectedly. The best human relationships eliminate these two fears. A good friend is fundamentally someone you know will not purposefully do things that damage you and who will act in ways that you can predict. We call this "trust" in our normal, social lives. Our relationships at work require the same thing. We need to do things to communicate to people that they can trust us -- that we won't "act out" and purposefully hurt them, even when we feel bumped or bruised. We also need to demonstrate that our actions are understandable and normal. They can be predicted -- even when we might have a "right" to act out.  These two things help people trust us. And a healed relationship is one where there is trust.

Healing a broken relationship at work is perhaps harder than healing a broken leg, but it can be done. In most places, we don't have the benefit of a doctor to diagnose and prescribe treatment, but we can do these six things to help heal the relationship ourselves. The bad news is that all broken relationships will require us to go outside our comfort zone and "put some weight" on the relationship, perhaps while we are still afraid -- even when we know it might be painful. But in the end, a healed relationship, perhaps one so healed it is even stronger than before, is better than a broken relationship. 

Erick Lauber is an applied psychologist and faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He speaks and consults on leadership, personal growth and development, and taking charge of our own life stories. He has won 19 educational TV/film awards and has published in numerous psychology journals and book chapters. Visit www.ErickLauber.com or www.LifeFraming.org for more information.




     

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