How to rebuild burned bridges at work

Remember that time you told off your boss in front of everyone else in the department and then flipped her the bird for good measure? It. Felt. So. Great. For about a nanosecond, until you realized you’d become the office pariah and no one would even talk to you for fear of being labeled a troublemaker.

Joan Jett may have sung about not giving a damn about her bad reputation (Sorry, Britney, your cover just doesn’t have the same power as the original), but in the business world, sometimes you have to make nice to people you despise. And sometimes it’s more complicated than that. You had a bad moment, made a stupid mistake and have to figure out how to reconnect professionally to move your career forward.

So, what can you do if you quit your last job — but then hear about a job opening in another department? Should you make nice to your old boss or supervisor, or simply proceed with the new application as though nothing had happened? Or what if you’ve had a huge public blowout with a colleague and now need to work together on an upcoming project?

How can you begin to repair burned bridges in your own professional life?

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow, J.D., M.Ed., Clinical Assistant Professor, Management and Business Law at Indiana University’ Kelley School of Business, says that you have to be willing to do what it takes to rebuild the relationship with a three part process.

1. Take responsibility before you can move on

Communicate with an intent to be willing to admit the ways you might have contributed to the problem.

“It takes two to tango. Bridges can be burned on both sides. Consider your part in that,” Westerhaus-Renfrow says. “If there’s a huge argument with another colleague, you had the choice to either be engaged or to walk away. … If you were the catalyst for the explosion, admit it. This can start the process toward rebuilding.”

2. Compromise to rebuild

Compromise by being willing to do what it takes to rebuild the relationship.

“Be willing to say, ‘You know what? This relationship is for the best of the organization.’ … I’m offering what I have to help rebuild this,”Westerhaus-Renfrow says. “Use your strengths or attributes to listen, to apologize, or even offer a forgiveness you may not feel is deserved. Use whatever tools you have so you can walk across that bridge to reach shared goals.”

3. Be realistic

Understand that change and rebuilding will probably require time and hard work.

When you build a bridge, Westerhaus-Renfrow says, that creates “the shortest way of getting from point A to point B. But it takes time to rebuild that. And keep in mind, that bridge or relationship likely already was vulnerable, because it burned down. So build it up stronger the next time. It takes time to learn to communicate again.”