Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How To Repair a Broken Work Relationship

Have you ever had a good work relationship go progressively sour after a certain point in time, but you aren't sure why? In Coping with Difficult Bosses, Brahmson calls this a Reciprocol Attack Spiraling Phenomonon (RASP), a universal human disaster that happens after what he calls an "interaction accident." While this is a common pattern, the good news is Braham provides a recipe for getting a work relationship back on track.

A Story of an Interaction Accident
In this example, Bramson writes about how a good work relationship quickly spiraled down after one blink of a moment:

"To better understand how RASPs feed upon themselves, we'll need to revisit an almost trivial incident that took place one month before the bottom dropped out of what seemed to Mike to be an ideal working situation. For six wonderful months he had blossomed as the junior member of the tiny marketing staff of a small but growing company. He had shown he could turn our readable copy; he was learning much about market survey, customer accounts, and how to make a product line more salable.

Best of all, in Peggy, he had found the perfect boss. She had a lively wit, she got on well with everyone, she went out of her way to help Mike over the rough spots, she even seemed to get a charge out of Mike's youthful enthusiasm."

The Interaction Accident
Bramson continues:
"Then it happened: one uinmortant little playful little remark tossed out at a staff meeting. Peggy was at the flip chart, lovingly laying out her ideas for a new ad campaign, when Mike, caught up in the intensity of an important planning session, butted in with "Peggy, you are a very smart person, but that's really a dumb idea." Peggy barely blinked. Instead she smiled a little and said, "Maybe so," and moved on with her presentation. Mike continued to be active in the discussion, unaware that anything untoward had happened."

The Downward Interaction Spiral
Bramson continues:
"The first signs of disaster hit him two days later. As he was walking into Peggy's office, her secretary had said sharply, "I'll let you know when Ms. Teller's free. If you have copy, you can just leave it with me." "What's with the closed-door policy?" he quipped. "Is Peg on a status kick?" There was no reply.

Later in the lunchroom, thinking that her secretary had merely been a little officious, Mike asked Peggy when he might see her. Peggy looked up without a smile and said, "Talk to Faye (her secretary) about when she can fit you in."
In the blink of an eye, Peggy had felt publicly ridiculed, and was furious that he, a neophyte whom she had "adopted," had questioned the soundness of her thinking.

Anatomy of a RASP
Bramson writes:
"In a sense, they are foreordained by the social nature of all human beings, because most of us wonder, and often worry about how we appear to the people who are important to us. We search their faces, their behavior, their words, for clues. Do they appreciate how important, competent, likeable or powerful we are? What are their intentions toward us? When those clues, correctly interpreted or not, tell us that we have been ignored, dismissed, snubbed, shamed or in any other way taken lightly, we retreat, attack, dissemble -- sometimes all three."

RASPs vs. Difficult Bosses
A difficult boss is a separate issue. A RASP is the by end product of a relationship that's progressively soured. If you see two or more of the following indicators, it's likely that interactional spiraling is involved:

  • An abrupt change for the worse. RASP-caused changes in behavior generally show themselves quickly. A relatively abrupt change in attitude should make you suspect that something you did has left your boss with a bruised ego.
  • A precipitating event. You'll have additional evidence that your boss's sudden slide into suspicion, coldness or irritation might stem from a RASP if you can recall a recent event that might have left either of you feeling one down.
  • Relationships with others are good. Since RASPs tend to bring out the worst in both you and your boss, but only in relation to each other, both of you will continue to have reasonable relationships with others.
  • Your level of emotionality is extreme. If your stomach knots, your teeth grind, and you feel overwhelmed with helpless fury, you are very likely ensnared in an interactional problem.

Steps to To Repair Interactional Spirals
Braham provides a set of steps to cope with interactional spirals:

  • Step 1. Make a short-fuse appointment. A formal appointment readies your boss for a serious discussion and provides an easy first step into uncertain territory. Keep the lead time short (for example, request a three o'clock meeting at two.) Avoid starting your discussions right there, in the hallway or over the phone (for example, "It's really too complicated to get into right now.") Make sure you'll have at least an uninterrupted hour. Avoid scheduling when you or your boss are in the midst of a business or personal crisis.
  • Step 2. Set the stage. When you meet, ask your boss to hold all calls. Indicate you appreciate your boss's willingness to meet with you. Say a few words on what you hope to be the outcome of the meeting - the best possible working relationship. Don't expect anything more than a cold stare. You avoid that by not pausing after you've finished your stage setting (Note how RASPs continue to set up both parties for mutual disppointment.)
  • Step 3. Comment on the state of your relationship. Having set the stage, start off by commenting on the state of your relationship, as you've experienced it. Do your best to describe rather than accuse, whine, or nag, give about equal time to your own problem behavior as well as that of your boss, and neither underplay nor overstate to make your point. For example, "I'm not sure how you see it Peggy, but I'm very dissatisfied with the way we've been working together. I feel like I've been letting down on my work, and turning in things that don't fit my own standards, and it seems to me that you've been taking some pretty critical potshots at me in staff meetings. I don't think that it's my imagination that we haven't been as friendly as we were several months ago. My impression is that at this point you're pretty fed up with me. How does it look to you?" (Tip - don't end with a question like "Do you agree?" You won't be sure what is being agreed with and you're inviting an angry response followed by silence. )
  • Step 4. Prepare to be dumped on. Having provided that sort of opening to someone who is thoroughly annoyed with you, what should you expect but a sustained and bitter railing and condemnation? It's vital that you begin this whole process of repair expecting to be vilified. If your boss denies there are problems in your relationship and replies with a cold "Nothing's wrong," don't argue the point. Instead, express your pleasure that you were mistaken, and describe a rosy future relationship. "Wonderful Peggy. That means we'll have lunch together as we used to, you'll give me face-to-face feedback on my work, and that some of the comments you've made about me were just your way of joking around." You might get a dumping that you did not get before. If you don't, your relationship may actually have improved. If not, cycle back to step 1 or you might actually have a difficult boss.
  • Step 5. Convey understanding without excuse or apology. Fight the natural reaction to lash back or get defensive. These very human responses don't help much. Instead, show that you did hear and understand without agreeing or disagreeing with it. Echo it back using "active listening." Paraphrase back the essence of your boss's complaints about you and acknowledge the feelings that your surmise underlay those complaints. Having demonstrated that you got the message, without a pause, move on to the next step, describing your good intentions.
  • Step 6. State your intentions. Since the core of a RASP is a tangle of suspicious guesses that the other guy intended harm, it is the truth of those intentions that needs to be corrected if things are to get better. The essential ingredients of the correcting message are two phrases: 1) Certain events led you to think I meant to do you wrong; and 2) That is not what I wanted. For example, "Whatever I did in the past, my intention is always to be straight with you (do my best work, be a part of the team, etc.) Given the tension that is always a part of these encounters, your boss may only hear that part of what you said that fits well with what they already believe - that you are a crumb. So be prepared for a reiteration of the negative things you've already heard. If that should happen, briefly recycle to step 6, and once again, emphasize your own intentions.
  • Step 7. Move to problem solving. The magic of the problem-solving mode is that it focuses on the future. While problem solving draws on past happenings for data, it's goal is to make things better from now on -- your present purpose exactly. Problem solving at this point serves two purposes: 1) it provides you both with something to talk about 2) it is the means for preventing future escalations. An easy opening phrase for problem solving is, "What do we need to do to prevent this sort of mix-up from happening again?"

Key Take Aways
Wow! I'm impressed that not only does Bramson identify and name the pattern (RASP), he has such a prescriptive approach for handling it! Here's my key take aways:

  • It happens in the blink of an eye. It only take a moment to trigger the downward spiral.
  • It's a spiral down. It's more of a snowball than a roller-coaster. The sum of all the little threats, attacks, and friction build on each other. The downward spiral is powerful, capable of erroding even the firmest foundations.
  • Knowing is half the battle. If you know the pattern and can identify it, that's a start.
  • It's a matter of intentions and corrections. At the heart of the problem is a misinterpretation of intentions and a failure to correct expectations and rebuild goodwill.

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