Understanding the Relationship Gauge

Question: I have been a manager for the past five years of a small marketing department within a mid-sized corporation. I am a pretty “Type A” personality and drive myself and my team kind of hard.

I thought they were all okay with this but was devastated last week when I was called into Human Resources and told that a formal complaint had been filed against me as an abusive boss. Three of my staff members accused me of temper tantrums and abusive language. I am being forced to go to anger management training to keep my job. I am ready to quit management.

Alice Waagen: Wow. What a tough message to get out of the blue. You have what I would call a severe case of broken relationships. In my experience, relationships generally don’t break down based on one incident but rather they erode over time by repeated negative behavior.

It sounds to me like your staff was not happy about your management style and chose not to confront you with their unhappiness based on fear of your temper and history of volatile reactions. So instead they let it bottle up until a breaking point, then went to seek help from outside the team.

Fixing broken relationships takes time and is a slow process. You will need to identify those behaviors that your team finds intolerable and stop using them. But relationships are not one sided. You need to share with them any of their behaviors that set you off and get them to likewise stop. Here is the slow part: you can’t change multiple behaviors at once. I recommend one at a time spread out over two to three weeks each.

Set the stage from the start that all of you own the relationship repair. This is not just about you. It is about how you and each one of them work together.

The best way to begin repair work is to mutually agree on the starting point.

1. Sit down with each person and ask them to rate the relationship using a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is as bad as it gets, open hostility and dislike and 10 is fantastic, they are a real joy to work with. You can use any descriptors you want to indicate the top and bottom of the scale. The goal here is to listen to where the other person perceives the relationship to be.

2. Don’t question or argue, just listen to each other and accept that this is their perception. I like to actually draw out the range as a graphic and have them place an “X” on the continuum. I call this the “Relationship Gauge” and the goal is over time to move the “X” closer to 10.

3. You all need to acknowledge that is it unlikely that your relationships will get to 10 considering the 5 years of bad history. You can also discuss what a tolerable number to shoot for is. A 6 or 7 may still indicate a certain level of distrust but you are able to function adequately to get the work accomplished.

4. Please move slowly and carefully when repairing relationships. Again, if you try to change too much too fast, the changes won’t stick and the negative behavior will come back, making the damage even worse. You are all human and will occasionally slip back into bad behavior.

5. *The bottom line: Using the Relationship Gauge gives you a concrete, objective way to face where you are and to set plans to get back on track.