How Great Leaders Repair Damaged Relationships in the Workplace

There’s no denying that the workplace can be a stressful place–especially for those in leadership positions. But with so many projects going on and so many people to manage, it isn’t unusual for miscommunications to occur. While these mishaps are often easily resolved, in some situations, saying something the wrong way can result in hurt feelings, anger, or even a loss of respect for you as a leader.

If you allow this emotional damage to fester, it can build resentment among employees. When this happens, a wide range of negative outcomes is possible, from poor performance to an increase in employee turnover.

In fact, a 10-year, 200,000 person global study by O.C. Tanner found that an incredible 79 percent of employees who quit their jobs cited “a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving.” You can bet that damaged relationships contributed to these negative emotions. Because of this, learning to recognize and address instances when you may have damaged an employee relationship will prove vital for maintaining a strong work environment.

Strengthen your own emotional intelligence.

For many managers, a relationship-damaging moment stems from an emotional reaction. This can occur when you misunderstand something an employee says to you, or when a major setback occurs due to a team member’s poor choices.

You feel hurt or upset, and if you let your emotions take control, you can lash out in negative ways. In such instances, having high emotional intelligence is vital.

As Mark Raffan, president of Negotiations Ninja, explains, “If we’re not aware of ourselves and our emotions in the moment, they take hold of our responses. Some people are emotionally intelligent enough to sit back and think, ‘Wait, why am I feeling this way? What is really going on here?'”

He continues, “If we can be like those people and somehow observe our own emotional responses to certain situations, it allows us the luxury of starting to understand what is really going on and whether we should be offended or hurt at all. The key is to manage our emotions and not let them manage us. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, and it does take conscious and deliberate effort to be present and aware.”

Practicing emotional intelligence will leave you better equipped to not lash out in inappropriate ways when an employee disappoints you. Perhaps even more importantly, however, it will give you the skills to recognize when an employee interaction goes poorly so you can act quickly to correct the issue.

Be willing to say “Sorry.”

If you have a negative interaction with an employee, you have to be willing to own up to your mistake. The best way to make things right is to recognize that you reacted poorly and apologize to the person you may have offended.

An apology where you acknowledge and accept your fault, express remorse, and try to make amends will go a long way in rebuilding a relationship. However, you must avoid the temptation to shift blame to others or attempt to justify or excuse your actions. Such actions won’t help your employee feel any better about the situation and may foster further resentment.

Be cautious with how you say sorry. You don’t have to go overboard, just make an authentic apology, recognizing your mistakes and asking for their forgiveness.  

Realize your shared purpose

Many relationships get splintered because both parties are focusing on the differences that feel too big to overcome. Often times, this happens because the leader and co-worker feel like they are on opposing sides. While these feelings make sense in moments of struggle, they actually aren’t accurate.

You and your direct report are in the same group working for the same company, thus on the same team and not opposite.  A great way to make this almost immediately get your relationships onto better ground is by verbalizing your shared purpose at the beginning of your next discussion.

It would sound something like this, “I have been thinking a lot about some of our struggles working together and I realized I made a big mistake. We are on the same team trying to achieve great results, and I lost sight of this. I want you to be the best you can be and I know you do as well.”

Now I can’t guarantee the rest of the conversation will go well, but I do know if you realize and communicate your shared purpose with someone you are struggling with, your odds of repairing the relationship are much better.

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company which exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. John was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by Training Industry.com. John is also the author the upcoming book Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Successand host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on Instagram @johngeades.


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