how to repair a bad relationship with a staff member

When a manager’s relationship with a team member becomes rocky, it can make working together effectively feel nearly impossible. As the manager, you might stop trusting the employee, avoid giving them assignments that would put them in close contact with you, skip out on giving them feedback, and generally find it tough to have them on your team. Unsurprisingly, being on the employee side of this equation is even worse; it can have such a negative impact on an employee’s daily quality of life that it will often result in the person just leaving the team.

But you can sometimes repair the relationship when this happens. It takes a true desire to get to a better place and a willingness to tolerate some discomfort.

To start, think about what your own role in the situation has been. For example, one common dynamic is for managers to be frustrated with an employee and rather than talking openly with the person about what isn’t going well, they instead let the frustration fester. Because the manager isn’t talking openly with the employee about her concerns, the employee doesn’t know where he’s going wrong and what would help the situation. In time, the employee starts picking up on the manager’s tension and becomes frustrated and unhappy with the relationship too.  However it played out between you and your employee, be honest with yourself about what how you’ve contributed to the situation. Without that, it’s going to be hard to move past it.

Then, talk with the person about the problem and what you’d like to change. In some cases, it will help clear the air if you can each talk about what you’ve seen go wrong and what led to the conflict. In other cases, it might feel unhelpful to delve into the details of what happened in the past and instead focus on what you’d like to happen now. But in either case, emphasize that you’d like to try to reset the relationship. Try framing the whole conversation as “let’s start over,” which can be refreshing and relieving to an employee to hear.

From there, give the person a fair shake. You’ll have to be cognizant of the patterns (of both behavior and thinking) that you’ve each fallen into, and deliberately work to give the person a fresh start. Talk regularly, and try to assume the best when you do. And be patient too, since the relationship isn’t going to transform overnight; it’ll take some time to rebuild.

Of course, be realistic about what you can expect. Since you can’t magically transform colleagues into different people, you want to go into this process focused on changing the relationship, not the person. If the issue is really fundamental to the person or their work, focusing on the relationship probably isn’t the right move; in that case, you’d want to contemplate whether there’s a bottom-line fit issue to address.  And of course, you also need to recognize when a relationship has been so damaged that it can’t be repaired, and be honest when that’s the case too. But in many cases, you canwork to remove tension and get the relationship to a better place.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Stranger than fiction*

    I sure wish more people were mature enough adults to recognize and do this. Sadly I’ve witnessed too any times where neither party steps up to have that transparent conversation due to ego issues or whatever and like you said, the employee gets frustrated and leaves or the manager gives up with trying and makes sure the employee is on the top of the chopping block list or instead makes that persons work life so miserable they leave on their own.

    1. Tiffany In Houston*

      Totally agree with you. Especially the part about the manager making the employee’s life miserable so that they end up leaving. Once your boss has you in the crosshairs, in my experience, you are done for.

  2. voyager1*

    Most average to bad managers won’t admit their contributions to the problem. They are not willing to do a “start over” conversation. And give the employee a”fair shake” unfortunately goes against a lot of human nature… that re-earning trust is about impossible with many people.

    Good article. People need to hear this kind of stuff and actually try to practice it.

  3. BRR*

    Ooph, when an article hits a little too close to home. It’s especially hard when you respect your manager, it would be completely different if I thought mine was an idiot.

  4. _ism_*

    I think my HR lady hates me. She’s called me names and accused me of arguing when I had some “complicated” questions about my benefits eligibility. At the time, I sucked it up and apologized to her, though I don’t feel I did anything wrong. After all, we were in a meeting to have our benefits explained to us by her.

    Later, I had to report sexual harassment. She handled that respectfully, at least.

    Now, I’m having to get my employment verified in order to solve a personal financial matter. I give them HR lady’s phone number, and I know she’s dodging the calls. I’ve heard her instruct the receptionist to send employment verification callers to voicemail, and she doesn’t return the voicemails for two or three days. This means that the services I need aren’t available to me because they think I’m lying about being employed.

    How would you advise solving this conflict? Talking to her like a mature, informed adult didn’t work in the past.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Have you told her directly that it’s time-sensitive and asked if she can expedite it? If not, I’d start there.

      More broadly, how senior is she? Is she the head of HR or is someone in the department above her? If the latter, I’d talk to that person if you continue to have problems with her.

      1. _ism_*

        She’s the HR head, at least at our local plant. We have a corporate office out of state and I don’t personally know those people.

        The issue she delayed returning calls on has blown over, so if sometime like this comes up again I am going to need to give her a heads-up like you suggested. That irks me, because I overhear everything in this office, and I hear her answering employment verifications for other employees immediately. She seems to be delaying them just for me, but I was out of the office on one of the days they tried to call her and I didn’t get to hear how that call was handled on this side.

        The only person who can intervene is my boss, the general manager. She confirmed HR lady doesn’t care for me very much, some time back. And yet they’re tight. I dunno, thanks Ask a Manager named Alison – I will keep this in mind if it comes up again, but carry on knowing what I know about her.

    2. LQ*

      Did you contact the HR person to let her know to expect an employment verification call from someone about you? If you think this is a sour or strained relationship it can help to phrase it very gently. If she knows that it is expected and urgent and out of the norm that is much more likely to be handled well than sort of unknown calls from what would to her seem like random people asking for a favor.

      1. Gandalf the Nude*

        Employment verification for financial (and other) services is so routine, though, she definitely shouldn’t be viewing them as unknown calls from random people. If she’s dodging those calls, she probably has a fundamental misunderstanding of what their purpose is because they should really all be treated as time-sensitive, whether the employee requests it or not. Tinfoil hat time: I kind of wonder if she’s sacrificing all VOEs in order to sabotage the ones that are due to ex/employee job searches. Whatever the reason, the practical thing to do is definitely to ask her to prioritize it or go over her head.

        1. LQ*

          I’d say it’s possible, but when you have a sour relationship I find it’s usually best to invest in what you need and what you can do to build the relationship. You just don’t have the capital to say, hey! Do your job! Even if it is the case. (Unless you’re the boss but that’s not this.)

      2. _ism_*

        No, it was a call that came up on short notice. I was out of the office for a medical appointment on the day I needed her to answer the call, too. If I this comes up again, I’m going to have to give her a heads up beforehand, I guess, even though that’s not normally necessary for anyone else.

        That said, someone calling HR at a company to ask “Does so-and-so currently work there?” seems pretty par for the course. We have a lot of employees who have various reasons that they need their employment verified (usually by a bank or a government agency) and these kinds of calls are handled quickly and without any trouble for everyone but me.

  5. Callie30*

    This is great advice, Alison! I hope more managers heed #1 especially. It’s also important to compartmentalize personal and professional feelings about a person if you’re managing them, especially.

  6. sunny-dee*

    I think it’s also important to recognize *why* the relationship has gone sour. You touched on this, about seething frustrations that are never expressed to the employee, and I can’t emphasize this enough. In that case, the instigating issue may be the employee — but the cause of the problem (the unresolved tension) is the manager.

    1. Vicki*

      I was thinking the same. We could have an entire article on uncovering the “Why”.

  7. Shannon*

    This is hitting close to home with an employee of mine at the moment. I swear on Peter Drucker that I (and my boss) have tried a number of things with my problem employee. I’ve changed my communication style with him, increased check in meetings, ask questions to confirm his answers – and to attempt to draw out any confusion he might be hiding. But I cannot change selfishness and apathy. He is easily the most selfish employee I’ve ever encountered – it is all about him and his ego and he can’t even identify his actions as selfish after I talk to him about it because he just doesn’t see the selfishness – he literally does not understand it, not the detriment it can cause. I think that comes from within. We’re in the midst of a serious PIP (yeah, I know) with him, and frankly, I am hoping that he is looking because his future here is shot. He has lost our trust after multiple attempts and chances. And while I know some of this is intrinsic to his personality, I keep wondering what I could have done better…

    1. Ann*

      Your comment is hitting close to home as well. A position was created on our team several years ago for a supervisor (there was already a manager, but the “supervisor” came to our team for a project and her previous position was dissolved while she was gone, which should’ve been a warning) and it’s been a horrible experience with her ever since. She’s created a toxic environment for the whole team because she’s manipulative and very passive aggressive. She also tries to use her title to make her employees feel worthless and will make it seem like she’s 100% supportive of us to the manager when we all know she’s really not. In addition, she’s given PIPs to three employees on a five-person team in a span of about six months time. This really shows a poor management style because she doesn’t have the ability to lead a team of people unless it’s with fear and intimidation; she doesn’t have clear expectations at all. It’s truly a sad situation when each employee is relieved when the supervisor “targets” a different employee because she leaves them alone for the time being. At least four of the five-person team had talked with HR about the situation and several have gone above her head to the manager and the VP. As a result, HR has come in to talk to the manager and the supervisor is being closely watched. Hopefully, she’ll be gone very soon and people will be able to recover from the emotional damage she’s caused. I just don’t understand why she feels she can treat people that way and get away with it.

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