Organizational Culture

Relational Repair: Examining Process Domains Within and Between Organizations


Relationships are contingent on different levels of trust, affect (a.k.a. emotions), and varying degrees of exchange between those involved.  This social and/or economic exchange at the organizational level is a sensitive bond and should be examined carefully.  Differing “breaks” in a relational bond bring about differing outcomes (e.g., loss of trust); thereby constituting an examination of what form of relationship repair is appropriate.

Relationship repair involves actions by one or both parties to return the relationship to a positive state after disruption causes an influx of negativity.

Defining Relational Breaks

The result of a relationship break brings about differing outcomes (e.g., negative emotions), which require different actions to repair the relationship.  Although there is overlap in outcomes with each type of disruption (i.e., lack of trust may lead to negative affect), it is important to examine each break individually.
  • Break in trust: relational disruption leads to one or more parties perceiving the other as untrustworthy creating skepticism of integrity.
  • Break in positive affect: negative emotions (e.g., anger, frustration) surface and inhibit smooth business and social interactions.
  • Break in exchange: cooperation ceases, slows, or becomes destructive, thereby inhibiting productive exchange.

Repairing the Relationship

Through careful examination of the break in organizational bonds it is possible for damaged relationships to move forward by reestablishing trust, affect, and exchange.  Varying tactics to effectively repair each process include:
  • Responsible party offers a sincere apology for the untrustworthy actions, clearly displaying penance, and makes plan to restore the trust between them.
  • The guilty party displays appropriate actions (e.g., fines), exhibiting penance, and giving open apologies in an attempt to restore social equilibrium within the relationship thereby attempting to restore positive emotions.
  • Counterbalance any mistakes through legalistic remedies.  That is, implement “controls” (e.g., policies, procedures, contracts, monitoring) that inhibit future negative behavior and ensure positive, productive exchange.

Examining Repair Temporally

Understanding the dynamics of the disruption in times of the relational repair is important, but an overall examination at every stage is crucial to preventing disruptions from happening in the first place, repairing disruptions while occurring, and preventing those disruptions from happening again. Aspects to evaluate at each stage of disruption are:
  • Pre-disruption: what was the original state of trust, affect, and exchange?
  • Disruption: what factors contribute to the disruption?
  • Repair: what tactics are used to repair the disruption?
  • Post-repair: what is the new state of trust, affect, and exchange?

Take Away Points

Organizations repairing a problematic relationship with another party should:
  1. Ensure an understanding of where the problem has arisen.  That is, which areas of the relationship (e.g., trust, affect, or exchange) are causing a lack of cooperation?
  2. Take appropriate actions in order to repair the specified problem areas.  Ensure all domains are properly repaired, to prevent relationship relapses.
  3. Evaluate the process as a whole to ensure a complete understanding of the relationship before, during, and after the repair process.

Interpretation by:

Adam Bradshaw

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Durks, K.T., Lewicki, R.J., Zaheer, A. (2009). Repairing Relationships Within and Between Organizations: Building a Conceptual Foundation. Academy of Management Review, 34(1), 68-84. (2008).