Thousands of years ago, bridge burning was a military strategy, used to sever the route between your troops and an advancing enemy. It also meant there was no returning to where you’d just been: You were committed to marching onward, no matter what happened.
While not quite so dramatic in the modern office world, figurative burned bridges can be just as hard to undo. There’s no single definition of what exactly a burned business bridge is, but you know it when it happens. Maybe you battle a coworker for years and then don’t show up to her farewell party. Maybe you mess up your first big contract assignment with a new company, or resign in a dramatic huff, or tell a boss what you really think of him on your last day.
Burning a bridge may feel good at the time—it can be the easy way out of an awkward situation, a release of pent-up anger, a chance to let your emotions take over—but the ashes can follow you personally and professionally.
"Writing off a business relationship when you haven’t tried to salvage it first is a very bad idea," says Lauren Bloom, who speaks and consults on business ethics and wrote Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies.
Burned bridges "do come back to bite you," she adds. "So it’s really worth learning how to [repair them] before a problem blows up in your face and becomes a real career buster."
Here’s how Bloom and other experts recommend fixing things, assuming some time has passed and the break was a jagged one.
Before you take action, Beth Weinstock, a clinical psychologist, leadership coach, and cofounder of The Resilience Group, suggests thinking about why you want to repair this bridge, and what you hope to get from fixing it. Do you just want a chance to say you’re sorry? Did this particular relationship mean a lot to you? Is this purely a business move?
The answers will inform how you approach a reconciliation. She says to consider your own patterns, too. If you’re someone who can’t let go of the past, tends to feel guilty, and obsesses over everyone liking you, it may be better to keep heading away from that bridge. "Sometimes we need to learn to let go," Weinstock says. "Not everybody is going to like us or want to work with us."
If a severed relationship could hurt your career—or if it’s simply left a pit in your stomach—Bloom says it’s worth trying to reconcile. In fact, she’s in favor of repairing burned bridges whenever possible. She suggests sending a message over email, Facebook, or LinkedIn first.
Something like, "I’ve been thinking: We didn’t part on the best terms, and I regret that. Can we set up a few minutes for me to call you?" Or if you’re both still in the area, see if you can meet for coffee. Either way, Bloom says an apology is not a conversation to have over email—and she is vehemently against sending apology gifts in the business world.
That first back-and-forth may tell you a lot. Maybe the person will say that they’d love to see you, that there’s nothing for you to be sorry about. Maybe not. Before you meet up, Bloom says it’s important to think about what you’re apologizing for, and why you’re sorry for it.
Once you’re in the moment, she suggests being sincere, taking responsibility for your part in what went wrong, and making sure the other person has a chance to tell you about things from their perspective. Weinstock says it’s also important to address the behavior of the person that bothered you, not their personality quirks or broad characteristics.
Even if you weren’t the one who torched the bridge, it’s still possible to repair it. "But asking someone to meet for coffee so they can apologize to you isn’t going to be very good for either person," Bloom says. If you can explain that it feels like you parted on bad terms and that you regret it, "they’re going to come to the table 90% of the time," Bloom says. Weinstock says you can also approach with curiosity: "I don’t quite understand what happened between us, but I’d like to find out and see if we can build a bridge."
To stretch the metaphor further, it’s possible to fireproof a bridge—or at least have a high-pressure hose nearby. Weinstock says it’s essential not to take things personally in the business world: Don’t overreact to perceived offenses, and try to develop a thick skin at work. If a relationship does implode, Bloom says it’s best to apologize quickly. "Sometimes things blow over," she adds, "but a lot of the time all they do is calcify and grow fangs." Still, if something is keeping you up at night five years after it happened, "fixing things five years late is better than not at all," Bloom says.
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture, and higher education. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.