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How managers can repair damaged employee relationships

In a recent webinar discussing the importance of healthy performance reviews, several questions were asked about how to approach and ideally repair damaged relationships with employees. Whether due to a loss of trust, a bad interaction during a performance review, or personal differences, it can be difficult to manage an employee with whom you don’t get along.

Even in a healthy feedback culture designed to encourage open communication and make employees feel safe and comfortable in those tough conversations, these types of issues can develop. Let’s take a closer look at why that is and what you can do to start the repair process.

Acknowledge there is a Problem

If you think there might be a problem, there likely is. It’s tempting, though, to ignore the warning signs in the hopes that it will resolve itself. Much like a personal relationship, however, a rocky professional relationship can go from bad to worse if you neglect it.

To address the issue, you must first acknowledge there is an issue. Only then can you ask key questions that will help you take the next step. What was the root cause of the problem? What responsibility do you have in the rift? What has happened as a result of this issue, and what will happen if you fail to address it?

This can be difficult for anyone to do, as it requires a manager to take a step back and be self-aware enough to admit if and how they are at fault. For example, some managers will grow upset with an employee’s performance or perceived shortcomings but fail to communicate those concerns. The problems don’t go away, and as the manager becomes more frustrated, the relationship becomes increasingly combative and the employee grows defensive. How it started is ultimately less important than acknowledging the issue and moving towards a solution.

Accept What a Healthy Relationship Looks Like

It’s important to have a friendly relationship with your direct reports. You should be able to show how much you care for your team, and you should aim to earn their respect and trust. A healthy relationship is not necessarily one in which you all go out for drinks after work; but it is one in which you work together toward the same professional and organizational goals and trust one another.

This has been debated for years – how close can a boss be with their subordinates without creating more potential problems? The answer is complicated, but close friendship almost always creates problems. It’s impossible to befriend all of your direct reports equally, and there will be times when your final decision need to be respected. A friendship is about equal needs, and while fairness is a hallmark of successful leadership, there is an inherent inequality in the power dynamic. You manage people, and at the end of the day, they look to you for direction and the final say on what to do.

For a professional relationship to succeed, there must be respect, trust, and productivity. This is someone who you rely on to get things done properly and in a timely fashion. They in turn need to see you as a credible leader who will always act with their best interest at heart.

Hold Additional One-on-One Conversations

You should already have regular one-on-one conversations scheduled with each of your direct reports. The value of these weekly or bi-weekly meetings is immense, both for you to better understand the needs and concerns of your direct reports and for them to feel heard and able to get the support they need to succeed.

When a manager-subordinate relationship sours, these meetings take on an entirely different tone. They often become combative, with both parties being increasingly defensive toward the other, and major issues being glossed over or avoided to keep things civil.

To address your concerns about the damaged relationship, set aside time specifically to discuss it, either during a regularly scheduled one-on-one, or in a separate, more focused meeting. These should be in private so you can discuss the issue openly and address its core causes. Based on your reflections, dive into what you feel has caused the rift, and how you hope to solve it in your role as manager. At the same time, make it clear what your expectations are – you need to have a functional professional relationship with this employee and to know you can trust them to do their job to the fullest of their ability. This should not be an ultimatum, but an affirmation of your goals as a manager and coach.

If you can achieve alignment on goals, the next step gets easier. Identify actions you can both undertake to further improve the relationship. Are there communication issues? Attendance and productivity issues? Feedback issues? Addressing these requires finesse as you set clear objectives for your direct report while you personally take responsibility and set new goals.

Start Over from Mutual Ground

This is the most crucial step in the process. You’ve identified the problems, accepted responsibility for your role in the relationship, and had a discussion with your employee about expectations, goals, and next steps.

For the relationship to be repaired, you both need to start from scratch and give the other a chance to show that they are committed to making a change. Continue regular one-on-one conversations, be vocal when you sense a problem and don’t let it fester, and most of all, be patient. This isn’t an overnight process. As a manager and a coach, your job is to guide your direct reports as they improve professionally. Simply telling them what to do and expecting a change often isn’t enough.

One final thing to keep in mind is that no matter how well you handle the situation, you can’t transform someone into something they are not. You can guide them in developing new and better skills, help them tackle recurring issues, and be there as they have questions or concerns, but be realistic in your expectations. Repairing a relationship is one thing. If there’s a fundamental mismatch for the role, that’s a different conversation entirely, often relegated to the performance review process. In many cases, however, with the right approach, you can build a stronger relationship with your direct report and help them to excel in the workplace.

Download our ebook, 10 Leadership Styles You Should Know, to learn which leadership styles are most effective at conflict remediation.