Are you a Bolter or a Stayer? How long should you stay in a difficult work relationship

Posted on: April 24, 2013

I was invited back to BBC radio earlier this month for another interview and phone-in as “workplace agony aunt”.   A strong theme emerged from the calls and emails of how to decide when to persevere with a challenging work relationship and when to walk away from it.  Knowing your typical style when faced with conflict is a helpful first step to deciding how to respond. Some people will try to move on at the first sign of difficulty, rather than putting in the effort to improve a working relationship (“Bolters”).  Others will endure a difficult relationship for months or years, sometimes at great cost to themselves and at risk of alienating their friends and family if they choose to moan to them instead (the “Stayers”).  Bolters would benefit from hanging in there more and Stayers would benefit from knowing when to move on.

If you are wondering which camp you fall into, and how much effort to put into improving a challenging work relationship, try working through the following questions:

1. Is there a miscommunication between you and the other person that needs clearing up?  Could you improve your relationship with them by having a frank and honest conversation?   An example given on the radio programme was of a woman who believed that her boss did not respect her because she  would not acknowledge her in the morning. She decided to raise this and discovered that her boss did not put her contact lenses in straight away so could not see her properly.  Once she realised it was not personal the problem was solved.

2. If a conversation will not help, can you change your attitude to the situation so that it has less impact on you?  For example, if your work is being unfairly criticised you could easily allow this to affect your professional self esteem and start to believe you are no good at your job.   Another way of looking at it might be to see that your boss is insecure about his performance and is dealing with this by putting you under extra pressure. It is not about you and you don’t need to take it personally.

3.  If changing your attitude or improving the relationship are not possible then it may be time to look at how you can end the relationship.  Working out what other options you have and ways to strengthen those options will be valuable.  You might need to consider retraining in some way, or strengthening your network so that someone else in the organisation offers you a job.  The more ability you have to walk away if necessary, the more assertive you can afford to be in the relationship.

In the film “The Devil Wears Prada” Anne Hathaway’s character turns herself inside out trying to please her impossible, ice-queen boss, played by Meryl Streep. Only when she realises that she has completely abandoned her values by betraying her colleague Emily does she wake up to how much she has distorted herself to win her boss’s approval, at which point she decides to leave and pursue a different path.

You always have a choice.   If you are grappling with a decision, recognise your typical style (Bolter or Stayer) and whether this will serve you in your current situation, then work through the three stages above to help you decide on your next step.