How to Rebuild a Soured Relationship With a Team Member

May 21, 2015
5 Min Read

When a manager’s relationship with a team member becomes rocky, it can make working together effectively feel nearly impossible. As the manager, you might stop trusting the employee, avoid giving them assignments that would put them in close contact with you, skip out on giving them feedback, and generally find it tough to have them on your team. Unsurprisingly, being on the employee side of this equation is even worse; it can have such a negative impact on an employee’s daily quality of life that it will often result in the person just leaving the team.

But you can sometimes repair the relationship when this happens. It takes a true desire to get to a better place and a willingness to tolerate some discomfort.

To start, think about what your own role in the situation has been. For example, one common dynamic is for a manager to be frustrated with an employee and rather than talking openly with the person about what isn’t going well, they instead don't give feedback and let the frustration fester. Because the manager isn’t sharing her concerns, the employee doesn’t know where she’s going wrong. In time, the employee starts picking up on the manager’s tension and becomes frustrated and unhappy with the relationship too.

However it played out between you and your employee, be honest with yourself about how you’ve contributed to the situation. Without that, it’s going to be hard to move past it.

Next, try a "let's start over" conversation with the employee. In some cases, it will help clear the air if you can each talk about what you’ve seen go wrong and what led to the conflict. In other cases, it might feel unhelpful to delve into the details of what happened in the past and instead focus on what you’d like to happen now. But in either case, emphasize that you’d like to try to reset the relationship.

From there, give the person a fair shake. You’ll have to be cognizant of the patterns (of both behavior and thinking) that you’ve each fallen into, and deliberately work to give the person a fresh start. Talk regularly, and try to assume the best when you do. And be patient too, since the relationship isn’t going to transform overnight; it’ll take some time to rebuild.

Of course, be realistic about what you can expect. Since you can’t magically transform colleagues into different people, you want to go into this process focused on changing the relationship, not the person. But if the issue is in fact fundamental to the person or their work, focusing on the relationship probably isn’t the right move; in that case, you’d want to contemplate whether there’s a bottom-line fit issue to address. And of course, you also need to recognize when a relationship has been so damaged that it can’t be repaired, and be honest when that’s the case too.

But in many cases, you can work to remove tension and get the relationship to a better place.

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