Negative work relationships.


16th October, 2019

What to do when work relationships turn sour

As in other areas of life, work relationships aren’t always a smooth ride. But rather than avoiding problems before, during and after they occur, here’s how to proactive turn things around for the betterment of your business.

Most people have had to, at some point, work with people that they find frustrating.

It could be a client that makes you groan each time you see their name pop up in your emails, or it could be a colleague or staff member who really rubs you the wrong way.

‘Whatever the situation, there will most likely be a time where you have to manage a work relationship that has turned sour.

Research by Totaljobs revealed that six out of 10 UK workers have at least one ‘work enemy’ and that the most typical reaction to problems with someone at work is to look for a new job.

In fact, 70 percent of responders said that they would go as far as looking for a new job if a work relationship went sour.

But don’t go looking for a new job just yet. The good news is that even some of the most negative relationships can be salvaged.

Understand the situation

When we spend more ‘awake’ time at our jobs than we do with our friends or family, it’s not surprise that work relationships often get strained. When faced with issues, many people ignore the situation rather than trying to deal with it. The problem with this is that underneath the façade of polite smiles or brief emails, resentment is building.

Sometimes, work relationships are just in a rut. Something has happened that has frustrated you and instead of dealing with it, you drop the relationship back a few notches. Other times, built up tension means that there’s a prickly ‘walking on eggshells’ vibe whenever you have to communicate, and the relationship actively impacts your workday.

Whatever the situation, it’s essential to first understand what has gone wrong and to identify the issue that caused the relationship to breakdown in the first place.

Communicate without ego

When it comes to fixing broken relationships, communication is essential. It’s also important to talk to your colleague or staff member directly, rather than trying to justify your feelings by involving others at work.

First, try and see the other person’s perspective. As hard as it might be, practicing empathy for others can often help us break down our defence mechanisms and discover that the reason we are feeling insulted or upset might often be a misunderstanding, or if it’s not, that the situation still may not be as bad as we have made it out to be in our own minds.

When you decide to approach your colleague or staff member, ensure that it’s in neutral territory rather than in your office or a work conference room. A great way to do this is to meet over coffee in a private corner of a café.

READ: 8 steps to influence change at work

While communicating, remember that everyone makes mistakes. Whether you feel the relationship breakdown is due to a mistake you made, or something the other party has done, discusing it in a fair and non-judgemental way is always going to be the best approach.

Explain how the situation has made you feel without letting your ego get in the way. If the conversation denigrates into who is right and who is wrong, try to steer it back to a solution-focussed one rather than a diagnostic one.

It’s unlikely that a single meeting will fix the problem, but an open, honest and non-judgemental conversation is a great step towards recovering a relationship.


Once you feel you’ve addressed the situation, start monitoring your actions.

Breakdowns occur over time, usually as a result of actions, and it will take a change in actions to bring those back on track. You need to actively let go of any past slights and focus on the end goal and how you are presenting yourself to this person.

Start to monitor your interactions with your colleague or staff member and try to change the tone of your everyday interactions. Don’t try and verbally convince them that things are changing or improving, show them.

Rather than keeping a mental point tally on who is doing more to fix the relationship, offer kind or helpful gestures to them without any expectation of something in return.

READ: How flexible work arrangements can improve your business

If you did involve others in your conflict, get those people on board to help repair your relationship. This shows that you are trying to break down any ‘my side, your side’ feelings and working to rebuild a team environment.

Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, some relationships are just not salvageable and, if they continue to negatively affect your work environment, they must be re-addressed and actioned.

For issues with fellow colleagues, it may be time to speak to your HR or management department and ask for support. For issues with staff, it could be time to start corrective activities such as performance reviews or, depending on the severity of the situation, disciplinary action.

Whatever the course of action you decide to take, ensure you keep your emotions out of the equation. Focus your energy on finding a solution professionally, while always remembering the importance of clear, compassionate and concise communication.