How do I Repair a Broken Relationship With My Employee?

Imagine for a moment, you are the manager of a team.  You were promoted into this role either because…

  1. It was the only career path (more $$$) available,
  2. You had some preconceived notion about the glamor of ‘management,’
  3. You were the highest performer on the team at a time there was a vacancy in the manager spot, or
  4. …Well… you don’t really know why or how – you were just going well in your job, and then suddenly found yourself promoted into a manager role.  #howdidIgethere

Sound familiar?  Let’s continue.

Even though you have been in the role for a little while, there is still one person on the team that is just a struggle.  For some reason, you can’t connect with him/her.  He/she causes problems, is a poor performer, or there is something else “broken” about your relationship with that person.

Still sound familiar?  If so, you are not alone.  In fact, it happens often.  VERY often.

Oh, and the feeling you probably have that this situation is known by others, and is probably dragging down the team in some way?  You’re not alone there either, and your instincts are right.  Resolving the situation with that one person will help the team.

Now, I have some good news and some bad news.  Good news: you’re not alone, all is not lost, and you will be able to improve things if you want to.  Bad news: it won’t be easy, there’s no ‘magic  bullet’, and it might be painful at times.

So where do we begin?

Remember, don’t hide from it!  Stand up, take courage, and face the problem head on!  #leadership

If you will acknowledge to yourself that you do want things to change and that you do want to do better, that’s an important first step!  Be conscious. Be deliberate.  #onedayatatime

The message and philosophy of building this relationship will not differ too greatly from the process of building trust I describe here.  But there are some key differences when you’re trying to repair, then build.  Here are three key steps to take:

First, state your intentions.  Draw a line in the sand that things will start improving from this day forward.  Talk to the person about it.  Something as simple as, “Bob, I don’t feel like our relationship has been as good as I would like it to be, and I’m guessing you feel the same.  I want you to know I’m committed to improving things.  I would like to ask you to work together with me.”

Next, listen.  Seek to truly understand why a person is (or isn’t) doing something, or behaving a certain way.  Where are they coming from?  What is their point of view?  How do they see the world?  How do they see their job, the team, and you?

Important note: it is highly likely that at some point in this process, Bob ‘lashes out’ and really lets you have it.  He may express disgust, disappointment, anger, mistrust, criticism, or any combination of these.  It is very important that you not respond, retaliate, or argue back.  You may need to just sit there and listen to some pointed – and potentially untrue – feedback.  This does not mean you should take verbal abuse or unnecessarily harsh or unprofessional language.  I just mean a person expressing opinions that may sting to hear. 

Third, speak the truth.  In an ideal Manager-Employee relationship, there is a foundation of trust so messages of performance and expectations can be shared openly and confidently.  In cases where a relationship is broken, the truth is not shared freely – it is either softened or avoided altogether.

While it would be ideal to have trust present to share these messages of truth, that’s not always the case.  It is never a bad time to start telling the truth.  Express your honest feedback, and share expectations for performance and behavior (having stated your intentions previously will help these messages to stick).

Use honest, simple phrases to help the person understand what you expect.  Things like:

  • “Please do _________ by the assigned deadline each time.”
  • “Please don’t do _________________ anymore.”
  • “It is important to me that you do _____________.”
  • “Your performance has not met expectations in this regard <provide detail>, it is important you show improvement by <provide detail>.”

These honest, straightforward messages of truth will allow your employee to know where you stand, and what you stand for – even if he/she is resistant to the truth at the beginning.

Positive, trusting relationships are built upon the truth!

As you take these actions, find ways to celebrate small wins.  Say thank you.  Express appreciation often.  Go out of your way to recognize effort and improvement.  Phrases like “thank you for sharing that with me” or “I appreciate your effort to get that in on time like I asked” or “I want to let you know that I saw your effort to behave in that way with our team, and I appreciate it.  Keep it up!” will go a long way in building your relationship.

I understand that each situation will be different, and much more nuanced than the basics I describe above.  This is just barely scratching the surface.

If you find yourself in such a case and are stumped about what to do next, I would love to give my opinion, help, or advice… please comment below, or reach out to me on twitter @realsimplelead or e-mail, and we can connect!


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