How to Mend Strained Work Relationships on a Global Team

Categories: Global Mindset, Global Teams

The winter holidays are typically a time of happiness and celebration, as well as a time to reflect on the new year to come. Before you step away from work to enjoy the holidays, consider mending any strained work relationships. Addressing an unresolved fight will likely allow you to better relax and enjoy the break (and allow your colleague to as well). It is the perfect time to set aside differences and commit to a better working relationship in the new year.

This sentiment might be a challenge to express to your estranged colleague — especially if you are the one in five workers who telecommute for work.

While telecommuting undoubtedly offers many benefits for global workers, it also poses new challenges. In the spirit of the holidays, we are offering some practical advice to mend strained work relationships — virtually.

Make Sure There Really Is An Issue

Is it possible your colleague missed your email or read it in a way you did not intend?

Before you spend valuable time and energy planning how to repair a relationship with a remote colleague, take time to reflect on the situation and clarify there really is a problem. Messages can be interpreted very differently, and words (or silence) can mean different things

Consider The Technology

Through what medium did the conflict occur? Consider the limitations of the technology. For example, on a video conference call, you have the advantage of hearing your colleague’s tone and inflections and seeing their facial expressions and gestures. In this setting, it is more likely for you to interpret your colleague’s messages correctly, and may come to a more accurate conclusion about whether there is a conflict or fight.

Communication through an instant message channel like Slack or Skype does not provide the same context as video conference calls, which can make it harder to determine the context of words and the meaning behind them. This form of communication heavily relies on typed word, but it does provide additional context in the form of response time. Did your colleague not reply to a question you sent? Is it possible they failed to see it in a long string of dialogue or forgot and signed off the channel? Consider alternative reasons or meanings behind messages and actions.

E-mail is still by far the most popular method of communication in any workplace, and unfortunately, the hardest to interpret. This channel relies solely on typed words, allowing for many different interpretations without the helpful cues of gestures, facial expressions, and tone.

Explore Communication Breakdown

Once you have assessed the situation to the best of your ability and confirmed there is some sort of conflict, think about what the issue is ultimately about and why it occurred. Keep in mind what YOU feel the issue is might not align with what your colleague believes to be the issue. Just as you would never want anyone to assume they know what you are thinking or feeling, don’t assume you know what your colleague is thinking or feeling.

Since many technologies allow us the convenience of running records, look back at your emails, Slack channel, and Skype messages (if you can). Don’t just read through the messages as you typically would, though. Try to take a step back and consider the following before reviewing the interaction:

Low Context vs. High Context

Do you and your colleague communicate all right face-to-face and via video conference? Do you find conflict arises only when you interact through instant messages and emails?

It is likely one of you has a high-context communication style, which relies on relationships, previous interactions, gestures, tone, eye contact, and other contextual features in order to make sense of a message and interpret it as intended. Alternatively, if you take messages literally and expect others to be straightforward with communication, then you have a low context communication style.

When individuals rely on context differently to communicate, miscommunication can occur, which can frequently result in conflict and confusion. Recognizing communication style differences is a great start to mending tense relationships, and avoiding future issues.

Direct vs. Indirect

Just as context plays a crucial role in communication style, so does nuance.

Are you frustrated because your colleague will not answer your question in a straightforward manner? Or, maybe you are upset because your colleague is unabashedly asking you pointed questions without first developing a relationship or providing context? These are two very different issues that come down to two different communication styles: direct and indirect.

Consider whether you are a direct or indirect communicator using the table below. After, consider what style characterizes your colleague.




  • Prioritizes task accomplishment
  • Prioritizes relationships
  • Communication tends to be impersonal
  • Communication tends to be personal
  • Likes to deal with conflict directly
  • Prefers to deal with conflict indirectly to save face

Linear vs. Circular

Most individuals in the West are used to linear thinking and communication, where thoughts are expressed in a straight line, moving towards the main point or idea gradually.

In contrast, different cultures and areas around the world are used to thinking and communicating in a circular manner. Circular communication involves storytelling and developing context around the main idea, which often goes unstated, as the listener or receiver is meant to understand and express it after hearing stories, context, and dialogue.

Consider The Best Approach To Make Amends

Would your colleague appreciate the opportunity to discuss the conflict? Or would they rather not spend time on it, and focus on upcoming projects?

Now it is time to consider how to make things better again. Hopefully, after reflecting on the various styles of communication, you have a better insight into how your distant colleague communicates and interprets messages remotely.

Keeping this in mind, think about how the other party would likely want to handle the situation. Do they appreciate and respond well to direct and open conversation? Or do they prefer not to re-hash things of the past? If you are in a higher position, consider if they are comfortable openly engaging with higher-ups, or if the power dynamic makes them uncomfortable.

Consider the communication style of this individual and how to best approach them. Everyone is different, and considering this individual’s work style will help you select the most effective method to mend your relationship.

Make Amends

Regardless of how you decide to approach your colleague, here are a few tips for the remediation process that will keep you on a successful path:

  • Check your bias.
    Keep in mind human beings tend to judge themselves based on their motives, and judge others based on their actions. The actions of an individual (or how you interpret the actions of an individual) could be very different than the motives behind it. Be willing to explore this.
  • Practice empathy.
    Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings. Think about who your colleague is as a person, and how they might feel in this situation. It can be helpful to reference Gardenswartz & Rowe’s Diversity Wheel to consider what makes up an individual.
  • Keep the end goal in mind.
    Before you engage with your colleague, remind yourself that the goal of this interaction is to mend your relationship. Being defensive or refusing to see their perspective is not going to help this goal.

Looking for more insight on better relationships and communication with remote co-workers?