When Good Working Relationships Go Bad, Part 1

by  Jeff Orr  |  Workplace Issues

Leadership is a delicate balance of relationship management. Those you lead must trust and respect you. They can’t trust you until they know you – and you them. Respect comes from time spent working with, listening to, and inspiring your team. They must know where you are leading them. So, you spend time building great relationships with your team. You weather tough times together. You invest in them beyond what they would have expected. Everything seems to be fine until…

A relational rift occurs. Maybe it started as a simple miscommunication. Maybe you said, or didn’t say, what needed to be said and the result is a deepening chasm of mistrust and hurt feelings. Whatever the cause, you know the relationship is damaged and you are left wondering if it can ever be the same.

I have led many teams over the years and had my share of miscommunications and missteps when it comes to relationship management. I have learned valuable lessons from some of those experiences. One still stands out.

I met Robert (not his real name) shortly after I had taken a leadership position in a non-profit organization in my young 30s. Robert was older than me, but we had quite a few things in common and quickly became good friends. He was a talented guy and skilled in many areas. I was heading up a team of 45 volunteers at the time and as the organization grew, I could see that Robert had leadership potential. After a time of development and training, I gave him his own team to lead. He took off. Our professional relationship, as well as our personal relationship, was as strong as ever. We weathered tough times together. We enjoyed highly productive and successful times together. When I took the senior leadership role of the organization, I knew I wanted Robert on the Board.

There came a point when I had a fairly large project I was heading up and had need for a highly talented and skilled individual to help me. Robert had many of the qualities needed, but not all. So I chose someone else. On the surface, this seemed to be a logical choice. It was the implementation of my decision that did the damage.

Instead of talking with Robert and explaining my decision, I simply made the decision and moved on. I knew better. I learned years ago to communicate decisions with key leaders. Embarrassingly, I hoped if I ignored the hard discussion and avoided certain topics in conversations with Robert, that everything would be alright. My “leadership” voice screamed into my mind that I had made a fatal error, yet I continued to ignore it. Robert learned of my decision second hand.

My relationship with Robert began to show signs of strain. Our personal interaction became sporadic. Our conversations were shorter and colder. Our Board meetings were tense as well. At one particular meeting, tensions boiled over and I found myself in a very heated argument with Robert. He accused me of deceitfulness, duplicity, and a few other not-so-complimentary leadership acumen. I can still see it in my mind. Both of us standing on either side of the conference table, face to face, yelling accusations at each other. Not exactly my best leadership moment.

We now had a canyon between us with no way to cross it. Time passed and we eventually went our separate ways. We attempted to reconcile a year later, just before I moved from the area to start my leadership company in Phoenix, Arizona. We settled our differences for the most part, but the relationship never got back to the way it was. I will never have the same relationship I once had with Robert. All because I made a critical leadership mistake in communication.

How do you possibly fix a situation like this? The obvious answer is to not get into the situation to begin with. If your leadership gut is telling you (like mine was) to go the extra mile and speak the whole truth, as difficult as it may be, don’t ignore it. You will save yourself much heartache. Next week, in part 2 of this article, we’ll look at specific solutions to restoring relationships.

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What People Are Saying

Martina  |  23 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Most often we lose our way in relationships when we fail to communicate. And the longer we stay away from correcting this, the bigger the rift will grow. It is often the person who perceives themselves as slighted, overshadowed, in the “weaker” position who will take the initiative to move away first.

This interaction may have been avoided if the person who got the coveted position had taken the time to talk about the changes that were occurring, and how the two individuals could still work together for the good of the organization.

These things start small and quickly take on a life of their own. It becomes increasingly difficult to fix the longer people ignore the elephant, which everyone else can plainly see, parading around the room.

Jeff Orr  |  23 Jan 2013  |  Reply

So true Martina. I wish I could say I have always corrected things quickly…

Penny Wilkins  |  29 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Interesting take on destructive relationships. I also found this article to be helpful. http://www.psychalive.org/2009/06/destructive-relationships/

Jeff Orr  |  30 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Good link Penny. One of the keys to having great relationships is first knowing who we are, how we’re wired, etc. We can save ourselves a lot of grief by understanding how our own expectations in a relationship can cause problems.

Financejobguru  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

I agree. A good working relationship may not be ideal to have it mixed with friendship. Not saying it is impossible to have both working well but special care is highly required in handling these relationships. I should also say that there will be a point you’ll need to be ready to lose one of it, a very difficult decision but a must choice to make. I made mine 9 months ago.

Jeff Orr  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Definitely a tough call. One of the challenges in these relationships is knowing which hat you’re wearing and when. I’ve found it useful at times to say to the other person, “I need to put on my _____ hat right now and talk to you about _________.” That has allowed the other person to know how to respond properly.

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