Repairing Burned Bridges

Despite widespread and numerous warnings from friends, family, associates, mentors, and blogs such as this one, many of us have left behind at least one bridge engulfed in flames. There are a lot of reasons why one might burn a bridge. An unhealthy or unsafe work environment, harassment and discrimination without recourse, or illegal, unethical or inhumane business practices might be good reasons to cut and run without notice. In instances such as these, the question becomes larger; what are we willing to risk professionally in the name of our ethics?

While the above considerations might seem abstract, the most common reasons that people quit are usually more prosaic. Maybe a great new position or business opportunity became available that you just had to jump on. Maybe you were passed over for a raise or a promotion, or you just can't stand your boss. Maybe you were burned out. In the heat of the moment, these might seem like perfectly justifiable reasons to terminate a business partnership or position without notice.

The thing is, the world of business is a small one, and word tends to get around fast. That flaming pile of rubble that you think is shrinking in your rearview mirror is only an illusion. What's actually shrinking is your reputation. And with every tick tock of the clock, the sparks from the bridge you burned are catching bridges on fire that you didn't even know existed. Inevitably, the path of your career will lead you back to the foot of one of these bridges, and there will be nothing there to hold you up but cinders and waves.

Maybe a few years have gone by and your old hiring manager who took a chance on you, only to be unceremoniously left in the lurch, is now the influential head of a leading firm in your field, and you're out in the cold. This is not at all unheard of; it's fair to say that anyone who has burned a bridge and lived to tell the tale has experienced a similar wake up call.

At this point, one has three courses of action to choose from: own your damaged reputation and stay where you are; take a costly detour and hope that word of your penchant for arson doesn't make it there before you do; or you can set about on the difficult, dirty, time-consuming, and invaluable work of rebuilding the burned bridge before you. Hopefully, the correct answer is apparent.

This won't be easy, particularly if you still believe that your behaviour was justified or that you were wronged in some way. Regardless of the particular circumstances, it is imperative that you reach out and apologize as soon as possible, in person, if possible. The longer you let a toxic situation fester, the more difficult it will be to heal later. While you procrastinate, word of your unreliability is spreading and business is being done without you.

Bite the bullet now, reach out, and do your best to humbly make amends. If the singed party isn't ready, give her or him some space and remember that it takes even longer to revitalize a relationship in which trust has been broken than it takes to build a trusting relationship from scratch. Again, word travels quickly so refrain from gossip and divisive language at work or within your network, even if you're sure that you're in the clear. It also can't hurt to come bearing gifts in the form of a solid lead, or can't-miss business opportunity. Even if these overtures are rebuffed, you can at least hope that any bad-mouthing that may have been occurring behind your back will stop. Chances are, your apology will help the other person to gain some closure in the matter, and by humbly and voluntarily ceding the high ground (despite the fact that you may be right), you have taken the all-important first step towards repairing  your relationship and reputation, minimizing any collateral damage to your business, and possibly reopening a lucrative and enriching road to opportunity.