How to handle workplace relationship breakdown

In today’s workplace, everyone gets along well. We create and develop positive relationships. We’re all sunshine and roses…right? Or perhaps not. Reports of stress and workplace mental health issues are on the increase…mental health awareness campaigns are increasing, not reducing the workload in this respect. As people become more conscious, more aware of their own physical and mental wellbeing, they become more protective of it. Here at Mapana, we recognise that interpersonal relationships are the number 1 most common source of stress. We may believe it is workload. But ultimately, another person is controlling, managing, driving, perhaps even dictating that workload. Other people most often trigger our deepest insecurities: of not belonging, not performing, not achieving, of being less than we ‘ought’ to be.

Bullying and harassment is likewise on the rise in the UK; this trend will become more pervasive as our collective Wellbeing insight develops and Employee Wellbeing training and development gathers pace and momentum. Increased reports of workplace bullying and abuse is a natural bi-product of ‘mental health (self-)awareness’ training, without accompanying focus on collective values and support.

Thanks to neuroscience we understand more now than ever of the impact of psychological and emotional trauma upon the brain. The old ‘sticks and stones’ adage no longer applies. Once basic physical survival needs (food, shelter) are met, our focus evolves to psycho-social needs: to belong, to fit in, to feel connected. So family dynamics apply. In simplistic terms, a relationship with a close colleague can be likened to a parent (manager : direct report), or sibling (co-worker : co-worker) relationship. Our attitudes, values and behaviours are thus informed and guided by our innate, programmed and deeply internalised values about how such relationships function. Someone who was parented in a controlling, authoritative manner will believe this is fundamentally the right way to manage someone. Someone who learned it was good to undermine or get siblings into trouble to win the approval of parents, will behave the same way in a team context. Company culture can go some way toward countering such behaviours, but is more likely to make them more subversive; to drive them underground.

Where relationship breakdowns occur at work, legislative, policy -oriented procedures fail. Yes, there needs to be a risk management dimension, but the focus here must be on the statutory duty of care to both employees, vs employment law. To handle these cases, HR leadership need to step out of procedural mode and into the people paradigm: learning and understanding the specific dynamics operating between the individuals concerned.

To guide this exploration, here are Five Golden Rules to govern managing workplace relationship breakdowns:

  1. Allow respite: Avoidance is a common and entirely natural human response to emotional trauma: we call it ‘the Ostrich strategy‘. Grievance processes are investigation-oriented: focusing on recounting and evidencing experience. Stress undermines both cognition and reflection, so it may be too early for either party to enter into such dialogue. The optimal solution is to create some space for both parties to recover their reactive response, so they can enter into a more rational dialogue about events and experiences. NB Asking someone to speak calmly or take deep breaths when they are stressed will invariably heighten their stress!!!
  2. Allow space: Grievance and conflict resolution processes often focus on bringing two parties together. Where a relationship has broken down, especially where bullying or harassment is cited, this is counter-productive. Instead, focus on ways of creating space between people for them to recover their stress
  3. Recognise there is no black-white, right/wrong: Too often employment law – oriented processes focus on a legal, right/wrong oriented judgement. In reality you are dealing with two different and unique human beings’ challenges in creating a successful working relationship, based on a lifetime’s worth of accumulated baggage. Complex, yet true.
  4. Focus on values and barriers: More often than not, we all want to belong. We all want to be liked. If we can encourage parties individually to focus on what that looks and feels like for them, and how they can work constructively to create those conditions, we can move them forwards.
  5. Don’t force: Give encouragement and be proactive but allow people the time they need to reflect, learn and grow.

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