‘Rupture and Repair’ is a concept widely used in the fields of social work and community services. It has origins in attachment theory founded by John Bowlby (1958) and is well known in therapeutic disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry and contemporary trauma-informed practice disciplines such as neurobiology. It is also something I have adapted to my leadership practice with great benefit.
In simple terms, ‘Rupture and Repair’ is about relationships. Specifically, it’s is about a breach or disconnect in a relationship followed by the restoration and positive continuation of that relationship.
My experience with ‘Rupture and Repair’ primarily comes from my work with children and young people with trauma/abuse histories in ‘state’ care or what we would call ‘Out of Home Care’ or ‘Care Services’ in Victoria. As practitioners, we would practice this concept after a conflict with our clients and also coach the carers of the children/young people to do the same. This model’s healthy relationships and conflict resolution with children and young people that have been abused and betrayed by their loved ones and as a result have trouble forming secure attachments with people. After a time we have the potential to assist in their healing by utilising this type of approach as we are promoting that there are safe and appropriate people in the world.
This concept can apply extremely well professionally from a leadership perspective. Conflict is absolutely inevitable In the workplace but a leader reaching out and re-connecting with their employee after a conflict situation models emotional intelligence, self-awareness and care for the employees. Some research even shows that this can improve and strengthen relationships as people now know they have been through some adversity in their relationship with you and there is strength and durability in their connection (Pinsof, 2009).
Recently I received an email from a staff member that works under one of the leaders I manage. This individual asked me what I was doing about a new government initiative I had been involved in as he felt it was making him look incompetent to external stakeholders when he was being asked about it continuously and didn’t have the information to give. The message was delivered bluntly and somewhat aggressively with not much ownership on this person’s part. In a moment of weakness, I matched the bluntness and lack of ownership and added in some ego so I replied in a defensive manner and shut him down. Maybe it was the 16-hour days, maybe it was the pressure I was under in another area, maybe it was the fact that I had been in the hospital the past couple of days with a family member undergoing surgery. Who knows, but one thing was for sure it was a leadership failure on my part and there really aren’t any excuses for that. I had created a rupture in the professional relationship.
My experience with the ‘Rupture and Repair’ concept taught me that as a leader it was up to me to have the self-awareness and humility to reach out and repair things, regardless of petty details.
The day went on and many meetings later I received a text message from this staff member telling me how he had been feeling down all day and the email reply I had sent really rocked his confidence. At first, I was annoyed as my ego and defensive mindset crept back in but then I stopped, took a deep breath and realised this guy was reaching out to me. I had made a mistake and needed to repair the rupture now.
This staff member is a hard worker; a silent achiever and his bluntness are authentic. Most importantly, he was right! I hadn’t deciphered the information from the government and communicated clearly to the teams as was my job as their leader. I allowed the confusion of the information to get the better of me and let this staff member down.
I called the staff member and promptly apologised to him. I spent no time making excuses and telling him about my family member’s surgery, or my workload or anything for that matter. I just genuinely apologised for my poor communication and my lack of ownership and advised him that he was right and I would get onto the task at hand and get some clear information to him and the team as a matter of priority. I brought him on board and asked him to support me in disseminating the information once I had clarified it as he was knowledgeable and a well-respected team member (I also wanted him to take some ownership).
We both ended that phone call feeling positive, connected and had a plan where we both were accountable to get the task completed. He advised how much better he felt that we had talked it out and let me know about some personal troubles he was having which gave me some insight into his original communications to me. I followed up with a text to him before the end of the day advising that I appreciate him, the skills he brings and am very glad we have him in the team. I genuinely believe we come away from that situation with a stronger professional relationship and were able to work together effectively on a complex task and support our teams together.
The above example is just one of many mistakes I have made as a leader but what the Eighth Mile team have taught me is that mistakes are an opportune time for reflection, review and improvement. A quick after-action review and some utilisation of my knowledge as a welfare practitioner allowed me to pick up this therapeutic concept and apply it to my leadership practice.
Next time you enter into some conflict and/or experience a rupture with someone at work, I challenge you to spend the extra ten minutes genuinely repairing things with that person regardless of who was at fault. I guarantee you both come away feeling better, you will build trust with the team and you may even see improvements in areas such as performance and productivity.
Mitchell Burney – Member of The Eighth Mile Community
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Durbin, E., Chambers, A., Latta, T., Karam, E., Goldsmith, J., & Friedman,
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Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371