What to do when you have burnt bridges with ex-colleagues

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

Career advisers and pundits, like myself, claim that we shouldn’t burn bridges. This is good advice, because burning bridges can have very negative effects on our career opportunities and cause long-lasting reputational damage, resulting in greater difficulties when looking for more work – particularly in niche industries. But what should you do when the damage is done?

The reality is that, in the heat of the moment, we can say or do things that cause conflict with colleagues as we leave one job to move to the next. Sometimes this is because it’s in our nature, or perhaps we have unresolved grievances that just come out.

It can look like we have damaged the relationships beyond repair. And that might be true. But we don’t have to accept this truth without at least attempting to patch it up.

Not that long ago, I was in this position myself. I made mistakes and left an organization I really enjoyed working in because I felt that they treated me badly. I regretted the way I exited because it sullied relationships I had coveted, and would still like to. I wanted to fix the situation.

How to fix a burnt bridge

You can’t fix a broken bridge if you claim no responsibility in striking the match, or fanning the flames. If you can’t see any part you played in the breakdown, then it’s unlikely there was a bridge there in the first place – just an illusion of one.

If you’re ready to ‘man up’ about the cause of the situation, you’re half-way there already! For me, I had to admit to myself that I acted like a jerk.

Relationships breakdown because we are human beings with all the frailties and issues that go along with it. The bridge was burnt because we made a human mistake. The most powerful way of recovering from any mistake (your mother probably told you) is to make an apology.

In my case, that’s exactly what I did. To show sincerity, I didn’t hide behind an email, but rather made a phone call. This is important – if you want to show sincerity and that you’ve taken responsibility for your part, then only a meeting in person or a phone-call will cut it.

Make a humble apology and don’t use excuses. Also, don’t take pot-shots at the other person for their own failings that led to the breakdown. Explain that the relationship is important to you and that you made a mistake in the heat of the moment.

You might not get the answer you want, right away. It’s likely that the other person had moved on, and your apology may have come as a surprise. But give it time. If your apology want’s accepted in the first instance, then don’t get into a huff. Give the other person some space and try again in a few days time.

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