Healing a Broken Relationship at Work

Healing a Broken Relationship at Work

By Erick Lauber, Ph.D.

Maybe you have a broken leg at work.

I don’t mean the physical kind; the type where you see a doctor and try to stay off of it for a while. That kind will heal in a few weeks all by itself.  I mean the broken relationship kind; the type that’s much harder to heal, keeps you awake at night and can end up making you unproductive for years if it isn’t fixed.

But a broken relationship at work is a lot like a broken leg. It can make you avoid certain places or take a different route in and out of your office.  It can dominate your conversations with friends and make your spouse wish you would just shut up about it.  Broken work relationships make you less productive and tempt you to overdue the “pain medication,” despite how dangerous you know that is.

Unfortunately, the risks of not treating your broken relationship are also like having a broken leg. It can become an ever-increasing problem or infection.  It might change how you act in the future, making you a bit gun-shy and eager to avoid another broken leg.  The broken relationship might even wear you out emotionally and physically, so much so that you just want to escape and maybe accept any offer to change jobs – even for less pay!

You might think that it makes sense to go back and examine how your leg or relationship became so broken. Thoughts like “What did I do so wrong?” and “How could this happen to me?” might float through your headBut how it broke isn’t nearly as important as how you respond. How you try to heal it. Healing a Broken Relationship

So, what can you do about your broken relationship at work?  Is there a way to avoid being one of those martyrs who in some weird way seems to enjoy having a broken relationship?  Fortunately, there is. But, like a broken leg, it will take some uncomfortable work.

1. Choose to Heal

The first thing that must be done is to approach the situation correctly. You have to make a choice: is this thing going to heal and get better, or, is it going to be a pain forever?  This choice is completely under your control and it really matters which option you choose.

For example, martyrs won’t listen to any advice, even from professionals. They don’t believe the relationship will get any better so they won’t try anything.  They stick to complaining as their only “therapy.”

But healers work toward a solution.  They try things, they ask for advice. They refuse to accept that the future has to look like the present. They believe.

2.  Avoid “Compensatory” Behaviors  or Work-arounds

For example, those who don’t believe a relationship will get any better start to work around it.  In medicine such activities are called “compensatory behaviors” because the patient is “compensating” for the deficient limb or process.  This can be a problem; first, because it puts extra strain on the other parts of someone’s life.  Long term problems can develop in those relationships that have to bear the extra weight.  Second, compensating behaviors don’t allow the original broken relationship to fully heal. They simply hide it.

3.  Use Crutches and Other Aids Temporarily

On the other hand, doctors do prescribe crutches and other aids when damage initially occurs.  It is not unreasonable to keep weight off a relationship for a bit while the anger subsides.  But importantly, doctors prescribe crutches so you can still function normally – not so you can avoid putting any and all weight on the foot.  In real life, we still have to function even with a broken relationship.  The proper temporary aids, like having a third co-worker present, or alerting a boss to keep things operating smoothly, is allowable – but only temporarily, and only in extreme situations.

Other temporary aids might include compliments and extra “Thank Yous”. Think of these as adding ointments or icy-hot to a broken leg. They don’t really heal it from the inside, but they do ease the pain and make it more bearable while the real work of healing is being done.

4.  Put It Up At Night

Everyone knows that a medical doctor will recommend putting a broken leg up at night. This helps it heal and can be thought of as “draining the blood out of it.”  The same thing applies to broken relationships – you need to drain the blood out of them occasionally.  Many a close friend and spouse have wished a loved one would put a broken relationship out of mind.  Stop picking at the wound.  If you wish, think of it as allowing your subconscious to work on the problem while your conscious self gets some time off. Either way, put it up at night. It will actually heal better if you don’t obsess and worry it constantly.

5.  Exercise It As Soon As You Can

Eventually, every broken relationship, like a broken leg, demands exercise and real use. This is the part that most people are afraid of. What if it hurts? What if it doesn’t feel exactly like it did before it was broken?

One piece of advice is to go slow and gentle at first, listening for when you might be pushing too hard and then easing up a little.  But every doctor knows waiting too long is a much more common mistake than jumping in too early.  Avoiding pain is a built-in characteristic of all humans.  But there’s a reason going “outside our comfort zone” is such a common expression in management and business.  The difference between success and failure is sometimes just the difference between those who succumb to our natural human tendencies and those who climb above them.

6.  The Most Important Ingredient: Trust

Did you know that a healed broken bone is often stronger than the original bone?  It’s true!  The biological processes that stitch bone back together produce stronger bones than the originals.  Is that possible with your broken relationship?  Actually, it is.

Consider: in our life, accidents happen; miscommunications, misinterpretations.  Sometimes people will misbehave around us for reasons we could not possibly fathom because we are truly not inside their heads,  so bumped and bruised relationships are inevitable.

But fundamentally, people are to some degree a little bit scared and insecure. They are worried other people won’t like them or will somehow “be out to get them.”  They are also very, very worried that they can’t predict what other people will do. Somehow bad things will come their way, unexpectedly.

The best human relationships eliminate these two fears.  A good friend is fundamentally (a) someone you know will not purposefully do things that damage you and (b) will act in ways that you can predict.  We call this “trust” in our normal, social lives.

Our relationships at work require the same thing.   We need to do things to communicate to people that they can trust us – that we won’t “act out” and purposefully hurt them, even when we feel bumped or bruised. We also need to demonstrate that our actions are understandable and normal. They can be predicted – even when we might have a “right” to act out.  These two things help people trust us. And a healed relationship is one where there is trust.

Healing a broken relationship at work is perhaps harder than healing a broken leg, but it can be done.  In most places we don’t have the benefit of a doctor to diagnose and prescribe treatment, but we can do these six things to help heal the relationship ourselves.  The bad news is that all broken relationships will require us to go outside our comfort zone and “put some weight”  on the relationship, perhaps while we are still afraid – even when we know it might be painful.  But in the end, a healed relationship, perhaps one so healed it is even stronger than before, is better than a broken relationship.

Action! for leadership is communication

Terry came into my office looking pretty upset. Just a few weeks before I had made him team leader of our biggest production team and I had heard through the grapevine things were going a little rough. One of his team had already come to me to complain about his “dictatorial” style.

Despite his youth, Terry had been a fantastic team member and unquestionably committed to the success of the organization. I didn’t think anyone truly resented his promotion. But if people were starting to complain this early, then I knew I had to work with Terry on his communication style. It was going to be a long process. And I had the tough job of convincing him to change in this next meeting.

“Dr. Lauber, they’re just not listening. I’m telling them what to do, but some of them pretend they don’t hear, or make comments as soon as I leave. I don’t think I was born for leadership.”

“Terry,” I replied, “you’ve heard me say many times ‘leaders are made, not born.’ I know you have a great vision of where the team should head, and we’ve worked hard together on benchmarks and measurements of your team’s progress. I think you are doing very well in the Lights! and Camera! areas of leadership. But let’s concentrate on Action!, the communication part of team leadership. Sometimes big differences in how we’re perceived as a leader occur when we change some very simple things, like how we ask people to do things.”

Terry didn’t seem too thrilled to hear this. And the next 15 minutes were spent illustrating how he could have been perceived as “dictatorial.” I pointed out that he was talking to his team as if he was a military commander or a sports coach. And, yes, perhaps most of the movies and role modeling he’d seen on leadership demonstrated this, but it is just one of many leadership styles. I suggested instead that in our technology-driven, creative-media production team, he should start all of his requests with a softer, very congenial request, and only “firm up” his language if necessary.

I told him over time his experience and judgment would improve and he would discover when the firmer tone was necessary, but since he was nearly the same age as most of the people on his team, a collaborative, collegial tone to his requests might “grease” their delivery. I also reminded him that as the leader he was responsible for balancing the team needs against the needs and desires of each individual. Resistance to an instruction didn’t always have to be stomped out. He had to listen and sometimes make the call about whether an exception to the rule had to be made. “In the end,” I explained, “it is always better to have a team member choose to help instead of feeling forced.”

Second, I told him communication is a two-way street. Only in military and sports movies did it look like leaders simply barked commands and everyone suddenly charged into battle with shouting and single-minded effort. In the real world, communicating is a back-and-forth process. For example, he needed to find out if each team member heard and understood his request just as he meant it. I told him he would have to get good at listening and following up on people’s body language or quizzical looks. This might be difficult at first.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Experience will teach you when things are most likely to get fouled up during the communication step so you’ll become increasingly alert to feedback at just the right times.

“Finally,” I said, “you will have to learn how to deliver your instructions in your own style so they sound like you.”

I tried hard to convince him there was nothing wrong with him. His leadership style was still under development. It might go in a thousand different directions. Perhaps he would be a joking, slightly sarcastic boss; perhaps a formal and polite leader. But it would come, naturally and organically. All it took was practice, and time. Right now he needed to concentrate simply on finding a way to communicate without sounding military.

We agreed to keep meeting. And I said I would help him with his phrasing and word choice. “But,” I finished, “you must work to constantly improve. You want Terry the leader of five years from now to be substantially different, and better than Terry the leader of today.”

He left and, truthfully, I remember wondering if he was going to quit. I hoped he didn’t. I thought Terry had great potential and we sorely needed experienced, committed team leaders like him.

To finish the story, Terry and I talked often about how to communicate with his team, and over the next two years he became better at leadership and eventually held one of the top leadership positions on campus.

Terry’s communication style softened considerably over time and he discovered it was a better fit for the type of leader he truly was. Not surprisingly, it was also better for the style of team he was leading. Most importantly, I believe Terry sees himself now as a “leader in development.” He asks for feedback more than any young person I’ve ever known. So I know Terry will succeed.

The world will, I believe, find ways to reward leaders, young or old, who constantly try to improve.

This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette on Sunday, Sept. 2 and online on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 at http://www.indianagazette.com/b_community/article_3a6471e9-3000-5913-92a8-a083b7511617.html


Focusing On Right Measures

Imagine you are sitting in the control room of a television studio, directing your first TV show.
In front of you are 10 different screens all showing different things. Some are live-camera shots, some are graphics or cued commercials. One is the live TV show you are in the process of shooting. Which monitor do you think would draw most of your attention?

If you answered the one showing the live show, you would be correct. Every one of the new team leaders I have trained over the years watches the live TV screen more than any other monitor.

Second question: Which screen should you be watching more than any other? Perhaps surprisingly, the correct answer is not the one showing the current show. You should be watching the screen of the camera angle you are going to show next, as we say, the shot you are going to “cut to.”

Sound odd? Isn’t it best to watch the output of the show to make sure it is going well and has the quality you need? Makes sense, but in reality, no. By the time that shot is up on the live TV feed it is practically too late for you to do anything about it. It’s live. You may want to put about 10 percent of your attention on the live feed to make sure nothing disastrous is happening on-air. But that shot is the outcome of your process. It’s essentially out the door.

New team leaders are surprised to learn that it’s the shot they are about to put on the air that should demand most of their attention. The upcoming shot is the one they can improve, and therefore, use to increase the (immediate future) quality of the show.

Similarly, without leadership experience, many of us think the output of the team is the most important thing to focus on. But nearly all leadership training makes a distinction between “lead” and “lag” measures. As part of the “Lights! Camera! Action!” leadership training I provide, this difference is fundamental to the second part of the training: “Camera!” Where should a new team leader focus his attention? What should be measured and how should feedback be given?

To start, “lag” measures are what (non-leader) team members instinctively think of as the most important measures. They are the outcome measures. They “lag” the efforts of the team and are the products that go out the door. Lag measures are usually obvious. They are articulated in team goals, rewarded by performance measures and observable to nearly everyone.

“Lead” measures, on the other hand, are arguably more important. Lead measures are the intermediate outcomes that “lead up to” the lag measures. If done well, they logically and causally lead to good (lagged) outcomes. Notably, they are usually not observable to outsiders, or perhaps to other team members. But they are still under the team’s control.

For example, if you are running a restaurant, you want your food and personnel costs low. This will lead to greater profits (an outcome/lag measure). In a factory, minimizing production time and inventory costs will lead to greater productivity or costs per unit. Eventually, these will lead to greater profits. In a TV control room, focusing attention on the shots that are about to appear on camera will lead to a better show on the air.

Team members promoted to new leadership positions usually aren’t aware they need to shift their attention and focus their leadership camera on these lead measures. Frequently, they don’t even know what they are. Thus, the “Camera!” work of developing leadership talent is to break down the team process and discover, define, record and report the intermediate measures that lead to team success.

I’ve mentored hundreds of students through their first TV experiences and I’ve discovered it is possible to break the natural habit of watching the “lag” measure. But it doesn’t come easy. Breaking our preconceptions can be hard, particularly if that habit is something so well-learned in Americans. Namely, watching TV.

This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette on Aug. 19, 2012 at http://www.indianagazette.com/b_community/article_58edbb03-3552-53d3-b008-950bcb7fad1c.html