How Companies Can Heal Their Wounded Personal Relationships


A crisis is gripping the business community that is deeper and more far reaching than most people realize or even imagine. At the heart of the crisis is peoples ineffectiveness at managing their relationships. The root cause of these failed relationships is failed communication. None of us have ever been taught how to appropriately communicate with each other and thereby nurture our relationships with each other. What makes all of this particularly disastrous is that personal relationships are the foundation for accomplishment and satisfaction in life. Many people fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining their relationships. If people are to move toward healthy relationships in work environments, they must:

Become genuinely committed to caring for their customers, associates and staff.
Communicate all unfulfilled expectations, disappointments and thwarted intentions.
Be willing to apologize for what they have done that has harmed another.
Forgive each other.
Create a vision for the future that everyone in the company can commit themselves to.


The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level we created them.

Albert Einstein

A crisis is gripping the business community that is deeper and more far-reaching than most people realize or even imagine. The crisis goes beyond financial or company-management problems, which seem to be getting a lot of attention these days. In reality, something is wrong in the very soul of our companies.

People are caught up in a system of thinking and behavior that has become structurally, morally and emotionally exhausted. The steep price we pay for this worn-out model of behavior is the damage to their personal relationships with colleagues, staff, customers, and even with their families.

In a word, while it’s more the fault of the system than the individual, most people are lousy at managing their relationships.

As someone who practiced law for 18 years and who has advised dozens of companies in the last ten years through my management coaching company, I have seen firsthand the evidence of a profound unhappiness stemming from peoples poor relationship skills. But I have also witnessed troubled companies take the bold but practical steps toward both better relationships and better work by clearing the emotional air and beginning anew to build relationships founded on selfless caring rather than self-protective alienation.

We’ll survey the causes and consequences of these wounded relationships. Then we’ll take a look at a proven and practical “cure.”

1. Missing the mark

In the face of dramatic shifts in business today, experts of every stripe have exhorted companies to become more businesslike, more efficient and more conscious of their bottom lines. Total quality management (TQM) initiatives and systems, apparently so successful among manufacturers during the 1980s, are now common fare in many publications.

Yet while cost cutting and more efficient management will surely benefit many companies as they struggle for financial survival, these remedies will not cure — and in fact may intensify — the deep dissatisfaction many people feel about their work.

Walk into virtually any company and you will fully understand these seemingly shocking statistics. Most companies are cold, dehumanizing places. A strained quiet hangs in the air. Worried men and women pass each other self-consciously in the hallways without any interaction. Most utterances about work are negative and critical. Everyone is busy — too busy to return client phone calls, too busy for families, too busy for each other. Gossip is rampant, jealousies are palpable, unsettling emotions hover just below the surface.

And fear — fear is everywhere. Fear about meeting deadlines, about decisions to be made or unmet financial obligations.

Companies may be able to improve their bottom lines by cutting costs and managing more effectively, but can anyone offer hope that such measures will notably improve the quality of life or work created in these environments?

Many possible explanations have been offered for the unhappiness among so many people at work. The complex, competitive and time-pressure characteristics of most work environments have been elaborately documented as possible causes.

But the crucial cause has been minimized or ignored. At the heart of the work people do are personal relationships — with the customers, with management, between others they work with, and relationships with the public at large. It is evident to a large degree that these relationships simply do not work for many. They do not provide people with a sense of joy and self-esteem. A lack of appreciation of the importance of relationships has denied people the opportunity to work together to produce mutually satisfying results.

2. Bad childhood messages

The root cause of these failed relationships is failed communication. For children, communication is designed to assure survival within the family and to satisfy individual needs. However, most families are fundamentally dysfunctional, operating with unspoken rules such as “don’t talk,” “don’t trust” and “don’t feel.” The survival mechanisms they breed tend to inhibit communication, lower self-esteem and obstruct realistic goal setting, achievement and satisfaction.

The result is an infantile view that sees the world in right-versus-wrong terms, a world in which there are necessarily winners and losers. Survival depends on justifying one’s self and invalidating others. People seek to dominate others while avoiding domination of themselves at all costs. In this adversarial environment, personal information in the hands of another is a threat, positions must be defended and appearances maintained. Cooperation is a mockery, compassion dangerous.

As adults, people use these styles of communication involuntarily and habitually, and they provide the world view that interprets all experiences and perceptions.

While contention may produce some desired result, the result is bought at a tremendous cost in personal satisfaction. People can continue to choose to be implacably “right,” or they can choose to be happy: For the most part, the two are mutually exclusive.

If they are to reverse the tide of dissatisfaction and disillusionment that threatens to overwhelm all companies, people must invent a new way of treating each other, their staffs and customers. They must commit themselves to building sound, nurturing relationships based on fundamental respect for the dignity of human beings and supported by the real work of effective, responsible communication.

Even when the importance of relationships and dignity are appreciated, significant barriers still stand. A primary barrier is that people operate legalistically with customers and others within the right/wrong, win/lose model. Unfortunately, people who live and work in a results-at-any-cost environment may be completely unaware how bad their relationships are. They focus their attention on negotiating the next deal and winning new customers. They are concerned about their survival and making money, but they are not interested in their relationships.

As a result, many people do not appear to be very caring, compassionate or friendly. Arrogance and cynicism infect them, and they are disliked and very much isolated and alone in their own offices. Unconsciously, the contentiousness that can work so well in some spheres creeps into their behavior with associates, friends and family as they are driven to seek the upper hand.

3. Deadly assumptions

Other barriers to effective relationships are more subtle but may be even more pervasive and relentless. Generally, people approach their relationships with others as if they’re beginning with a “blank slate.” But this is simply not the case. All individuals have expectations about the nature, content and outcomes of their relationships. They don’t often discuss these expectations openly, and fulfilling them therefore becomes highly improbable. Disappointment and disillusionment follow, and once a disappointment has occurred and a person becomes upset, the same “mistake” is often repeated. Again, rather than discussing the unfulfilled expectations or thwarted intentions, no one says anything. Communication often seems to be the choice of last resort.

Fear is the primary culprit in the failure to acknowledge disappointment — fear of offending or appearing foolish, fear of admitting wrongdoing or inviting a confrontation. And when people do tell others they are upset by their behavior, they often deliver their feelings as a personal attack or an attempt to assign blame, fault or guilt. Of course, the responses tend to be combativeness, resentment and ill will.

It’s no wonder that most people are simply unwilling or unprepared to face these possibilities. Instead, they choose silence.

In these circumstances, people operate on the illusion that ignoring or suppressing disappointments or upsetting feelings will make the episodes pass. This is particularly true of men, who are culturally trained to suppress their emotions. But silence does not make bad feelings go away; it makes them fester. It’s as if the aggrieved person were creating a “file” on the other person.

When the aggrieved person judges or evaluates another person, the metaphorical file is opened and begins to store evidence reinforcing the initial judgment. The trouble is that without communication, these evaluations determine individual reality, and any distinction between the facts of the original occurrence and their interpretation as stored in the file disappears.

4. The cycle of destruction

To illustrate how personal files are kept, let’s take the example of an employee who hears some secondhand gossip about another employee’s failure to complete a task in a timely manner. Rather than discuss this concern with the second employee, the first employee apprehensively drops off a project for action, already expecting an unnecessarily slow response. The first employee is unaware, however, that the second employee ‘s work load has increased dramatically lately due to the sudden departure of another employee from the company, and taking action on the project does require several extra days.

The first employee, without ever discussing expectations and subsequent disappointments, forms an evaluation like “unresponsive” and files it on the second employee. As they interact more, the first employee notes other real or imagined episodes of this same “unresponsiveness.” The file grows.

As the first employee’s unhappiness festers, the second may notice a subtle hostility. Without understanding it and not want to seem petty or offend the first employee, the second says nothing; instead, he attaches a judgment of “hostile” to the file of the first. If neither employee says anything about their problem, the evidence collection proceeds apace and the relationship cascades relentlessly downhill.

People, staff and customers all open files and collect evidence to incriminate others. In their minds, they are exonerating themselves of any responsibility for the collapse of their relationships.

This mutually assured destruction of relationships occurs in various combinations: between employees, between associates, between people and staff, and between people and customers. Undelivered communications, rather than disappearing, escalate and kill countless relationships. Inevitably people will fight abut something, anything, and in such a frigid environment often the best an office can hope for is peaceful coexistence and polite, superficial conversation among virtual strangers.

5. Leave the lonely path

What makes all of this particularly disastrous is that personal relationships are the foundation for accomplishment and satisfaction in life. Little is accomplished alone, yet many people fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining their relationships.

How do we as people move toward healthy relationships and work environments? The first step may be the hardest for people; they must become genuinely committed to caring for their customers, employees, associates and staff, as well as families and friends. True commitment to others is the only route to experiencing life’s riches and rewards.

Once this fundamental commitment is sufficiently evident, the employees then need to uncover and repair the accumulated damage to their relationships. Only in this way can the company hope to build a new foundation for healthier relationships.

Restoration preferably begins with each employee publicly communicating all unfulfilled expectations, disappointments and thwarted intentions in the other employees, in himself or herself, and in the company. What is it that the employees have blamed themselves and others for? What have they failed to acknowledge in themselves and others? Now is the time to purge all of the emotional files.

Depending on the size of the company, this is best accomplished during a multi-day, off-site retreat, preferably with the help of an outside facilitator who can guide and mediate the process. Initially, in order to gain trust, the facilitator needs to interview all employees and any other key employees who will participate in the process. This outsider will begin to uncover the unresolved issues that retard the company’s productivity and gauge the company’s existing strengths and weaknesses.

Critical to the communication process is responsible speaking. Those participating in the retreat must be honest, but they also must speak with compassion and respect. They should not speak self-righteously or try to demean, attack or blame someone else for an upsetting emotion. Communication should remain strictly a report on the speaker’s thoughts and feelings about a particular person or event.

The listener plays the more vital role. When the speaker tells of an upset, the listener must recognize the validity of the experience. Whether or not the listener agrees with the speaker’s interpretation of past event, the listener must recognize that the speaker’s report of thoughts and feelings is true for him or her. Defensiveness, explanation, justification, argument and resistance by the listener would all inhibit communication and reinforce the evaluation that gave rise to the file in the first place. The listener’s only appropriate response is “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or both.

6. The power of forgiveness

Once communication is complete, all the participants need to apologize to one another where appropriate and forgive each other. An apology is not an expression of sorrow. Nor is it an admission of guilt. When used most powerfully, an apology is simply an acknowledgment of one’s impact on another and a statement of responsibility in the resulting upset. It is also an invitation for the other to forgive.

True forgiveness wipes the slate clean. It releases all anger, resentment and the desire to punish. Forgiveness is a gift one gives oneself, because it relieves the suffering provoked by anger and resentment.

A Los Angeles company provided a dramatic example of how a retreat can heal. Communication among employees had so deteriorated that many had learned to hate each other. Hostility was so tangible that work was suffering. Associates, sensing the tension and fearing the instability, were leaving at an alarming rate, and the employees couldn’t bear the thought of spending two days in a room together. But by the end of the second day of the retreat, the employees had communicated everything to each other, apologized and tearfully forgiven each other. On leaving the room, one of the employees who had previously considered executive retreats “touchy-feely nonsense” said, “This was a miracle. Had I not seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed this could occur.”

7. Creating a vision

Once the disruptions of the past are cleared away, it now becomes possible to create a vision for the future that everyone in the company can commit themselves to.

Several specific questions must be addressed. Among them: What is the nature of the company’s practice? Its commitment to customer service? Its relationship to the customer? What working environment will the company create and maintain?

Every member does not need to agree specifically with the answers to such questions, but it is essential that they align themselves with the answers supported by the whole company. Each person must be able authentically and unselfishly to support the company’s stated vision, or else the undermining effects of unrelenting attachment to a particular position will begin anew. Many companies choose to do this design work with just their employees, while others include representatives of the associate body and staff — the people who will, to a large degree, be responsible for making the vision a success.

Next, the company gives flesh-and-bones substance to its vision by writing a formal statement of purpose. While corporate America has been writing purpose statements for years, many companies have been largely unaware of the power such statements could give them.

The purpose statement is a comprehensive description of the company’s fundamental philosophy, including the members approach to their work and the nature of their interactions with customers, coworkers and others. A clear statement provides a benchmark for all activity within the company, its role in the community it serves and the development of specific goals. It also provides guidelines for developing a system of compensation, advancement and acknowledgment that encourages contribution and support for the goals of the company. Finally, the purpose statement helps create an organizational structure that promotes teamwork, accountability and communication.

Once the design work is completed, the next step may be a formal launching of the company’s new vision. Many companies schedule a luncheon or other event. Representatives of the owners and of various employee working groups present the vision/mission for the company, its purpose statement, intended culture, strategic objectives and action plans. It is best then to break into small group discussions led by employees and employees representatives.

This kind of event can cause a dramatic shift in attitude toward the company, particularly when all the employees feel they have contributed to the process. All that people really want is to make a difference, to be part of an organization that is going somewhere, to be acknowledged for their contribution.

The final and never-ending step is follow-through. Every company has myriad issues to confront, including internal communications, business development, and staff and associate training. In keeping up the momentum of change, companies need to lay out objectives for the year and get to work developing projects and strategies.

What is exciting is that these forward-moving activities are part of an expansive context: the vision of the company and its long-range strategic objectives. The job of leadership is to keep the fire of the vision burning brightly for everyone in the company to see as these strategies unfold and as the inevitable disruptions and setbacks occur.

8. The renaissance we need

Healthy relationships and open communication make it all possible. The results produced by any organization are a direct function of the depth and quality of the relationships among its people.

This is the new model of behavior, the new system of thought and action that people must adopt. As

Dr. Einstein’s quote at the beginning of this article implies, anything short of the complete re-creation of the profession will predictably produce the same unsatisfactory work climate that people now experience.

9. Try this at your company

The reorientation of a company’s values around healthy interpersonal relationships begins with “file cleaning,” in which all disappointments and frustrations are communicated and forgiven. This process clears the air and creates the foundation on which the company’s new vision for itself will be built.

One way to discover withheld communications is for each member of the company to complete a series of written statements regarding the other members. These statements might include the following:

• My expectations of you that are unfulfilled are …

• I am disappointed in you/our relationship in that …

• What I am not saying to you is …

• What I am blaming you for is …

• What I have been blaming myself for is …

• What I have failed to acknowledge you for is …

• What I feel unappreciated for is …

Responses are then discussed publicly with the specific individuals following the ground rules for responsible speaking and listening.


If companies are going to prosper and survive, the people in them are going to have to start paying attention to the relationships that exist within the company and learn to communicate with each other in appropriate and meaningful way. A successful organization consists of a group of people working together on behalf of a future that they have all committed themselves to. It’s only through communication that you could possible have a group of people working together.

Author's Bio: 

Scott Hunter, author, speaker and industry leader, helps people GET UNSTUCK.
Stay informed and current with insight from Scott himself.