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How to Heal a Broken Relationship at Work

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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. I mean the broken relationship kind;  the type that’s difficult 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. 

So, what can you do about your broken relationship at 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.

2. Avoid “Compensatory” Behaviors or Work-arounds

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.  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.

4. Put It Up At Night

Everyone knows that a medical doctor will recommend putting a broken leg up at night. 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? 

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. They are also very, very worried that they can’t predict what other people will do.

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.

Healing a broken relationship at work is perhaps harder than healing a broken leg, but it can be done. In the end, a healed relationship, perhaps one so healed it is even stronger than before, is better than a broken relationship.

Erick Lauber, Ph.D., is an applied psychologist and faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He speaks and consults on leadership, personal growth and development, and taking charge of our own life stories. He has won 19 educational TV/film awards and has published in numerous psychology journals and book chapters.  His video log is located at

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