December’s Clean Slate Isn’t Clean for Long
December brings many end-of-year feel-good traditions to the workplace. Perhaps your Secret Santa spoiled you with gifts throughout the month. Or maybe co-worker gifts of candy, cookies, and charcuterie deliciousness filled the breakroom. Regardless of the treats received, December is typically a month filled with goodwill, generosity, and holiday cheer. People leave work prior to Christmas with a warm, grateful outlook on work, colleagues, and life, in general. And because of that outlook, we wipe clean the slates of past resentments and disagreements.
Then before you know it, January begins, and that blank slate quickly fills with bitterness and grudges from past events.
Tension with colleagues returns full force. The atmosphere fills with differences of opinion and ‘here we go again’ thoughts. People resolutely hold tight to their way of doing things. And any memories of those delicious December breakroom goodies are squashed as you focus instead on the stresses of working with those who make your days more difficult than they should be.
I’ll never forget being hired to provide executive coaching for a company where the COO and CTO openly shared their hatred for—and distrust in– the other. They held onto past grievances, and their teams and clients were negatively affected by their unwillingness to repair the relationship.
Keep Your Slate Clean with Steps to Improve Strained Work Relationships
Before you fall into that no-win situation and watch your own slate go from clean and empty to way-too-full, consider the ideas below designed to help you improve your strained work relationships in the new year.
- Decide WHY you want to get to a better place. You may have seen Simon Sinek’s TED Talk in which he shares, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” The ‘why’ drives you. It’s your North Star and is instrumental in helping you revitalize a strained work relationship. Your ‘why’ may be less stress, more peace, improved communication, greater productivity, better teamwork, or any other reason you truly want to mend your relationship. Before inviting the other person in, though, it’s imperative that you know your ‘why’.
- Initiate a private conversation. This is where the rubber meets the road. Choose a neutral setting to facilitate open communication, and be prepared for possible resistance to your initial invitation. In my attempts to mend past work relationships, I’ve received far more ‘no’ answers than I care to admit and have also received no answer at all (which is more painful for me than an honest ‘no’). Develop persistence in your request if you’re not met with a ‘yes, let’s do that’, and reach out on a consistent basis. Continue to focus on your ‘why’. Be respectful and kind in your request(s). (Side note: I just received a ‘yes, let’s do that’ from a former colleague after multiple requests for a private conversation. Keep going. Don’t give up.)
- Seek first to understand. Once you and the other person agree on a time and place to meet, bring curiosity with you, and leave judgment at the door. Ask open-ended questions to understand the other person’s perspective. Practice empathy by looking at the situation from the other’s point of view. While you may want to focus on your way being the ‘right’ viewpoint, there’s always room for consideration of the other’s.
- Share your feelings. When sharing your perspective, use ‘I’ statements to reflect personal accountability rather than ‘you’ statements that often assign blame. Notice the difference between, ‘I was discouraged when…’ and ‘You made me feel discouraged when you…’. Share your perspective on the situation and how it has affected you and the work you both do.
- Find common ground. Identity areas where you and the other person agree. Perhaps you both want your organization to accomplish 20% growth in the coming year. Or maybe you agree on the way new team members should be onboarded and trained. When you and your colleague establish shared goals or interests, you build a foundation for collaboration rather than confrontation.
- Commit to a consistent focus on your work relationship. This is where the old adage, ‘There’s no ‘i’ in team’ comes in. For many, a return to work in January doesn’t start slowly. The new year brings with it big goals and a nice stack of priorities. Don’t let your refreshed work relationship fizzle away due to busy schedules and no time to connect. Set regular connection times, and stick to them. This could mean on the first Tuesday of the month, you and your colleague meet over coffee to discuss wins from the past month. Or perhaps it’s a Friday afternoon meeting to discuss priorities for the following week and a rating of how you communicated that week with 1 being ‘We can do better than this.’ and 10 being ‘We’re rocking this!’.
- Monitor and adjust. Sticking with that ‘don’t fizzle out’ theme, know that adjustments will be needed over time. You and your colleague may decide in January that your biggest area for growth in your work relationship is in speaking respectfully to—and about– each other. By May, respectful communication may be the norm for you both, but you may notice you’re not communicating about the most important initiatives you need to discuss. Don’t bury the issue. Initiate the discussion; keep it respectful; and develop a plan for moving forward.
Create the ‘W’ for Everyone
Rebuilding strained work relationships takes time, patience, and commitment from everyone involved. It’s certainly not for the weak of heart, but with open communication, understanding, and a willingness to work together toward continued growth and connection, those strained relationships will mend and strengthen. And that’s a result that’s a ‘W’ for all involved.