Elizabeth was the type of colleague who was always inviting me out to lunch and then ambushing me with the delivery of her latest disappointments in me. The offending action was usually something seemingly insignificant (an innocent marketing snafu, misunderstood comment, a phone call unreturned) that had happened six months or so earlier.
Despite my sincere apologies, I eventually got tired of always wondering where and when the next hit was going to come from. In fact, all the walking on eggshells became so stressful that I quietly slipped away.
It wasn't until several years later, when talking to a psychologist friend, that I realized that if I had taken the time to declutter my business relationship with Elizabeth, I might not have had to dump her from my network.
As we turn the corner into the end of the year, it may be time to take a look at your business relationships and see if any need tidying up or throwing out. Here's some advice on how to keep a good business relationship from going bad.
1. Set Limits.
Your business associate or colleague is going through a tough time at work and needs support. "It's up to you to establish your limits, without feeling guilty," says Dr. Alyse Danis, a psychotherapist in private practice and an executive board member at the University of San Francisco. For example, your colleague calls ten minutes before you have to leave for an important appointment. You can set your limits by saying, "I'm just about to leave, so I can spend only a few minutes talking now, but I can call you back when I return from the meeting for a longer chat."
Learn to listen for the other person's boundaries and accept the limits of what your business associates are able to offer in time, energy and support.
2. Talk Sooner, Not Later.
Long-term feelings of resentment and anger eat away at business relationships. So, unless you can genuinely let whatever happened go, bring it up as close to the time the problem occurred as possible. "We sometimes have trouble saying how we really feel," says Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, author of Fight Fatigue: Six Simple Steps to Maximize Your Energy. "We don't want to rock the boat." If you tell the truth about how you really feel and the other person gets upset, it's not the end of the world, advises Dr. Bauman.
If you have a colleague who sits on his complaints for months before bringing them up, let him know that while you respect his feelings, you would appreciate it if he would get to his grumbles closer to the time they happen.
3. Do what you say.
While you may not be able to do what you say you're going to do one hundred percent of the time, the more reliable you are, the better your work relationships will be. Minor things like showing up on time and following up on what you promise to take care of give you a reputation as a reliable colleague.
In the event that you can't (or don't) do what you promised, don't wait for the other person to bring it up or hope they just don't notice. Instead, address it head on by acknowledging the situation, apologizing for any inconvenience caused, and offering an olive branch.
Is your colleague always late? Does she promise to send you something and then forget? Does she cancel plans at the last minute? Nothing can be more frustrating than dealing with a workmate who doesn't keep her word. While you need to understand that every once in a while circumstances can keep even the best of colleagues from coming through for you, if the problem has become chronic, it's time to let the other person know the impact it's having on your business relationship.
4. Focus on feelings, not facts.
Executive coach Randy Martin says that too many people, when faced with an unhappy colleague, focus on defending the facts of the situation instead of addressing their feelings. According to Martin, when a business associate or co-worker feels hurt by something you have said or done, start by saying, "I'm so sorry that I upset you (hurt you, made you feel uncomfortable, etc.). That is the last thing I would ever want to do." If they don't say anything, but you suspect that you have offended them, be proactive and reach out with an apology. Leave a voice mail, send a note card, or email your concern and regret.
If a colleague has said or done something that has upset you, don't be shy about bringing it up, but don't make it about their character flaws either.
The goal with all these strategies is to avoid putting the other person on the defensive and at the same time to let them know the business relationship is important enough for you to keep it clean and clear.