How To Sweeten A Work Relationship Gone Sour

Is a coworker making you want to tear your hair out? Transcend office politics, and take action before relations become unbearable.

How To Sweeten A Work Relationship Gone Sour
[Photo: Flickr user Lisa Brewster]

None of us achieves success alone, and the world of work is probably the biggest team sport any of us will ever take part. Yet, sometimes it feels like we’re playing on opposing teams with the people we’re supposed to be working alongside.


We’ve all worked with–and in some cases, hired–people we dislike, find irritating, or are frustrated with. There’s the client whose ego is so large the office has to install double doors to get their head through; the employee who can’t stop talking about anything other than work; or the colleague who carries the weight of the world on their shoulders and seeks to share their complaints with everyone.

On the other hand, you’ve probably experienced professional relationships that embody the partnership approach. Perhaps someone went out of their way to help you to succeed while collaborating and sharing information to achieve individual and business goals.

Strong, winning relationships with the people we work with don’t happen by chance–and neither do ineffective ones. Relationships turn sour or break down when we:


Forget To Be Present

The most common frustration I hear about relationships that have gone bad involves multitasking. We are all guilty of it: checking email while we are on the phone; not actively listening during a conversation; actions that send the clear message: “You are not important.”

If you want to avoid this, switch off the computer screen, turn away from the distractions, or–if necessary–signal you are in the middle of something, and will schedule time when you can focus. Email can wait. People can’t.

Break Commitments

Things will crop up and get in the way of genuine commitments. Fire off an email, pick up the phone, or walk over to the desk. Let the parties you’ve committed to know you need an extension, or are no longer able to assist them. If you break commitments, you then could spend months rebuilding trust, all for the lack of a quick conversation.


Fail To Apologize Quickly And Sincerely

You are going to make mistakes. When you do make one, step up quickly and apologize sincerely. Ignore the temptation to tell white lies or minimize the impact you’ve had on others. Mistakes can often be an opportunity to turn around a relationship.

Selectively Build Relationships

If you are focused only on the “right” connections, then your style will come across as inauthentic. I’ve worked with many leaders who–when they analyze their critical relationships–discover these are skewed in one direction and are not representative across the organization.

These people put a lot of energy in cultivating relationships with those with the right title and seniority, the vertical relationships, but spend less care and attention on those horizontal relationships across the business. Building an effective network requires a 360-degree perspective within your company or industry–and outside of it.


Make Conflict Personal

Disagreements are expected–if not encouraged–in a healthy working relationship. Effective conflict increases candor and debate; highlighting potential risks and increasing understanding. When conflict turns personal, any value is destroyed and all learning stops.

Reality Check–Pay Attention To The Warning Signs

Hindsight is always 20/20. It’s better to pay attention to the warning signs and course-correct before a relationship is beyond repair. Here are a few warning signs things are going off the rails with a critical working relationship:

  • Your emails or phone calls are not being returned in a timely fashion
  • You find yourself phoning in to meetings rather than spending time in the same room as the other person
  • You become aware of watercooler conversations that may have been started by the other person
  • You find yourself following up and checking in on commitments because they promise one thing, but deliver another–or are consistently late
  • When you see their phone number or name pop up in your inbox, you groan and roll your eyes
  • Other people ask, “Is everything okay between you and so-and-so?”

If you are paying attention when a relationship dynamic starts to change, you can then take action before relations become damaged beyond repair.


Do Your Professional Relationships Need Nurturing?

Take a minute to write down the three critical goals you must achieve in the next few months. Next to each goal, write down the names of the people who can directly influence–either positively or negatively–your success in achieving those objectives.

  • How would you describe the health of your relationship with them today?
  • Is the relationship healthy and focused on mutual success, like with an ally?
  • Alternatively, is it better characterized as tense, adversarial, and challenging?

If you realize you’re in a relationship gone sour, don’t panic. You can turn this around. Whatever the reasons are for why you find yourself where you are, you owe it to yourself to make the first move to effect change.

Here are five steps that will help you to cultivate winning relationships:


1. Go beyond the transactional. Seek out opportunities to get to know the people around you as people, not just at the transactional level of “Can you do this for me …?” or “Hello, how are you?” You may be surprised at how much of a difference taking the time to ask a few questions and listen to their responses takes.

2. Make time for coffee. Relationships are built–and destroyed–one conversation at a time. Find a neutral location–whether it’s coffee, lunch, or a walk around the block–and start the conversation that effects change.

3. Change your perspective. Empathy can be a critical skill in turning around a troubled relationship. Without empathy, we tend to paint ourselves as the victim and the other person as the villain. This limits our options. Put yourself in your adversary’s shoes, and ask yourself how they might describe the situation. A change in perspective can offer alternative actions to turn things around.


4. Be an ally. You can’t afford other person to “see the light” and change. You have to choose to go first, even if your actions aren’t reciprocated. I am often asked, “How do I know if so-and-so is my ally?” My response is it doesn’t matter. The first question to answer is whether you are being an ally to them.

5. Focus on the future. It likely took some time for your relationship to turn sour, so don’t expect it to transform overnight. This is not the time to carry baggage from the past. Let go of the past slights, and forgive–yourself and them–for the missteps that have brought you to this point. Focus on the end goal and be consistent in how you present yourself to the other person, and in following through on your commitments to make a positive difference.

Finally, stay in the game. If necessary, change your game. There is so much at stake for you and your team. After all, business is personal, and relationships do matter.


Morag Barrett, MA HRM, Chartered FCIPD, is a sought-after speaker, trainer, and the founder of SkyeTeam. With 25-plus years of experience in senior executive coaching and developing high-impact teams and leadership development programs across Europe, America, and Asia, she intimately understands the challenges of running a business and managing people.

She is the author of Cultivate: The Power Of Winning Relationships [Franklin Green Publishing], which is currently available as a hardcover via Amazon, and in brick-and-mortar retailers throughout North America.


Happily established in Broomfield, Colorado, with her husband and three sons, you can find Morag playing in the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra, where she is the principal bassoonist. In case you were wondering, her name is Scottish, and means “great.”