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Healthy Workplace Relationships: Strategies for Repairing Emotional Ruptures

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Emotional ruptures can occur when people have interactions that they feel are unfair, aggressive, or immoral. Three common drivers of emotional ruptures are misunderstandings, incivility, and unresolved conflict. When they happen, they can trigger strong negative emotions and dramatically influence employees’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

The consequences and risks of ruptures can be significant, particularly if these interactions last a long time, are severe, or occur frequently. Outcomes can range from hurt feelings to loss of trust, damaged relationships, and, if interactions are extreme, trauma and mental harm, which can lead to lost time at work.

Unfortunately, this Research reveals that rudeness and incivility are on the rise and workplaces are becoming petri dishes for emotional ruptures. However, there are steps you can take to prepare for and mitigate the damage they cause.

[See: De-escalating high-stress situations at work: 4 stages to aggression, 4 responses]

People make mistakes

If not appropriately managed, ruptures can fester, destroying relationships and creating barriers that increase the risk of isolation in your workplace. 

Don’t wait for an emotional rupture to occur before you talk to employees about these situations. Be transparent and set the expectation that conflict is bound to happen. Clarify that not all mistakes are acceptable and may not be tolerated, such as violence or harassment. 

Talk about values and behaviours that you expect in your workplace at the start of the employee relationship and regularly thereafter, and ensure you have the necessary policies, processes and tools for your team to work through these situations in a healthy and respectful manner.

Moving through an emotional rupture

“Rupture and Repair” is a process often used in psychotherapy. The success of this model hinges on humility and forgiveness. All parties must be willing to create space to learn and fail forward -- learn from mistakes made and take accountability for actions.

Assess the Rupture —Avoid making assumptions about the severity and impact of a rupture. Everyone responds to these situations differently; reactions and willingness to engage in repair may differ for the parties involved.

The first step is to assess the situation with empathy. Gather the best available information, such as who was involved and the type and depth of rupture. 

Expect that each individual will see the issue through a unique lens. Many factors can influence their response and mindset, including mental health, neurodivergence, demographic profile, generation preference, identified gender, education, title, and support systems.

Resolution Options — We all make mistakes; however, not all mistakes are acceptable or should be tolerated in the workplace. Many workplaces have a respectful workplace policy that defines what is and is not acceptable based on OHS legislation. In addition to policies, it is helpful to have values that set expectations for workplace behaviour and attitudes and lay the foundation for your healthy workplace culture.

Determine whether someone will facilitate the repair or the individuals will work through it on their own. Repair can follow one of two paths:

Relearning (informal) — Relearning can be facilitated directly by an unbiased third party or the people involved. This informal process focuses not on punishment or restitution but on relearning how to apply organizational values and policies to the relationship. This helps to create a psychologically safe experience for all parties that promotes belonging, collaboration, and professional respect. 

When you adopt this approach, you view the rupture as a mistake, the individuals involved are willing to and you have a process they can use to move through the repair phase with confidence and respect. 

Bill C-65 of the Canada Labour Code, which guides all federally-regulated employers, suggests that when breaches such as bullying happen, there may be value in allowing employees to repair the rupture informally. The goal is to correct behaviour that created the emotional rupture, and for the employees involved to acknowledge one another, apologize and forgive in aid of moving forward. 

Reframing (formal) — This is a formal process that usually involves a harassment complaint imposed by a leader, HR, or the parties involved. It can lead to a range of consequences up to termination. 

When the situation is this extreme, you must first stop any behaviours that create strain or heighten emotions and work to move the individuals  involved from emotional reactivity to emotional regulation. 

Only when all parties are emotionally calm can they engage in problem-solving and decision-making. There is an art and science to facilitating reframing because the parties’ belief systems will ultimately drive their emotional responses.

Demonstrating humility, accepting responsibility for mistakes, and forgiving doesn’t mean all is forgotten or that wrongdoings are okay. However, when employees trust that the processes you have in place are authentic, inclusive, and meaningful they are more likely to be able to release negative feelings and renew relationships.

By taking these steps, you will create an environment where people understand how to move through conflict and feel safe to learn and grow through challenging situations.

Get to know the author – Dr. Bill Howatt