Rebuilding Relationships


At a recent business dinner, the conversation was lively, the atmosphere cozy, and the mood light, as someone rose with glass in hand. “I’d like to offer a toast to Patty, for the terrific way that she has supported us this past year.”  Looking over the clinking of glasses and the round of warm congratulations sat an embarrassed but clearly gratified Patty.  This simple scene represented the culmination of a years-long journey to rebuild tattered relations between the groups present — and therein lies our story.

The Back Story

For more than a decade, relations between marketing and one of the lines of business had been frayed, sometimes to the breaking point—reflecting in large part the contentious relationship between the heads of both groups. Words like toxic, angry, skeptical, uncommunicative, antagonistic, and the like could be used to describe the tone between the groups at various points.  How did things move from this paralyzed state of affairs to the happy dinner scene above?  In a word, hard work—a series of steady, persistent actions over the course of years.

Lessons Learned

Several steps — some intentional, some happenstance — served to break the logjam and help move the relationship between the groups forward.

  • Change in Players—The first key event was the departure of the marketing head (for reasons unrelated to this situation).  The hard feelings between the two heads had become so entrenched that no progress would have been likely without some change in the principals.
  • Determination—When the new marketing leader assigned a different member of his team (Patty) to support the business line, she was aware of the past dysfunction and came into the role determined to turn things around.  She made it her mission to repair and restore the relationships.  Challenge accepted.
  • Credibility—Patty’s approach wasn’t to make big promises or take a “touchy-feely” approach.  Rather, she determined that what she needed to do in each of her interactions with the business line was ask questions, fulfill their requests as expeditiously as possible (with as little “drama” as possible), and over time, begin to influence the direction of the work by inserting her ideas as they became more comfortable that she was meeting their needs and could be counted on.  It was, it turned out, an excellent plan.
  • Moving from Order-Taker to Partner — The final step in the transformation of the relationship occurred over the course of two semi-annual planning meetings with the business line. Along with the marketing leader, Patty moved from presenter of information during a short portion of the meeting to leading a real dialogue with the business line regarding their hopes, needs, dreams, and aspirations. 

The culmination of this dialogue brought the groups to the celebration dinner “toast”—a sign of her acceptance as a partner.  It was a long journey … but one that looks like it will continue on much more sweetly than would have been conceivable at the outset.

Every relationship has its own history, obstacles, and dynamics, of course — but taking some of the steps noted above may help restore some of the tattered working relations in your own organization. To this—and to everyone like Patty working hard to change group dynamics for the good—we raise a glass in hope, and in celebration. 

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