How to heal a broken work relationship

It happens a lot: you have someone in your circle of work relationships that is driving you crazy. This relationship may involve your boss, direct report, peer, client, customer or someone else that you feel is preventing you from being fully effective. You need this person in some way to help you to accomplish your goals and this failed relationship may be keeping you from doing that effectively.

This other person is difficult to work with; they may be disrespectful, passive aggressive, or just not pulling their load. You have tried working with this person, and out of exasperation, you may have addressed the issue with the individual previously to no avail.

So what now? You’ve done everything you can and are at your wit’s end.

When I hear these stories from leaders, I almost always find one of the following things left out. They require great courage and they are just waiting in the wings for you to pull them out and use them:

Take ownership for your part in the failed relationship. Have you communicated poorly with this person, not been fully truthful? Or perhaps you’ve been too indirect so the message of harm that is happening between the two of you isn’t clear to them. In almost every tough relationship situation, blame doesn’t belong in just one place. There is likely something you didn’t do, forgot to do, or avoided doing.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable about your part in the situation. This means that you might have to admit your mistakes to the other person and apologize. This is hard, and not something we want to do, but it opens the door to a conversation you haven’t yet had with this person.

Have empathy for the other person’s situation that may be causing them to act the way they are. This is especially difficult, but try to put yourself in their shoes. Despite what you might think, they most likely aren’t out to get you, but may have something going on in themselves or their life that impacts their less-than-ideal behavior.

Have the conversation you need to have with them while taking ownership, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and trying to understand their situation. Be direct and be kind. Listen a lot, and try to understand their side by asking questions. Don’t be defensive even when it’s hard not to be. Follow up if you must later and continue the conversation until you can come to a resolution.

These things just might bust through the barriers of a broken relationship that will be more satisfying in the future.


Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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