Rebuilding a Burned Bridge

Rebuilding a Burned Bridge

Never burn your bridges. That’s sage advice whether you’re leaving an employer to take a new job or whether you’re putting a client/advisory relationship on hold. You never know when you may need each other again or where your paths might cross.

LeBron James, arguably the greatest player to suit up in a basketball uniform in the past ten years, is returning to Cleveland – and not because the Republicans chose Cleveland as its site for the 2016 presidential nominating convention.

LeBron would not have won a single vote in Cleveland in 2010 when he bolted from the Cavaliers, the basketball team that once selected him as their #1 draft pick, for the Miami Heat. But after reversing course last week and announcing his return, he could probably run for mayor and win in a landslide.

His latest move, which rocked the sports world, was not easy for either LeBron or Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert. When LeBron first jumped ship, he announced his decision on national television, instead of informing his employer first, and also made an ostentatious show of it. Gilbert responded by lashing out at his star player, labeling him a “traitor,” “disloyal” a “narcissist” and a “quitter.”

When a relationship seemingly ends in rancor, one would assume both sides had burned their bridges and that the rift was irreparable, but appreciation is a tool that can repair a lot of damage.

Gilbert told USA Today that a person shouldn’t be known for the worst thing he’s ever done. He thought long and hard what he would say to LeBron when they met to negotiate his return. Gilbert told LeBron they had five good years and one bad night. After 15 minutes of chatter, he said: “Is that enough about the past? And we started talking about the future.”

LeBron responded in kind: “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

To me, those words were the key to the reconciliation.

It is not unusual for a worker to leave a position for what looks like greener pastures. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the street. In LeBron’s case, he won two championships in Miami, so he certainly made the most of his move, but when he felt it was time to come back home, he knew he had to win back the hearts of Cleveland fans, and his former employer. He succeeded, like the champion he is, in one pithy sentence that showed how much he appreciated, in retrospect, what he left behind.

“Appreciation has the most positive effect on workplace culture when both coworkers and supervisors offer it,” says Dr. Paul White, co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

Managers often tell Dr. White: “I know I need to communicate appreciation and recognition to my employees, but sometimes it seems like a black hole. It’s never enough.”

To help them strike the proper balance, and to instill a culture of appreciation in a company, Dr. White has devised some basic tips:

• Appreciation is communicated through language and actions important to the recipient
Sometimes appreciation can be shown through words of affirmation like a compliment; an act of service like bringing someone a cup of coffee; by spending quality time, like stopping by a team member’s office once a day and even letting them vent occasionally, or through a physical touch like a handshake or a “high-five,” where appropriate.

• Appreciation is personal and individualized
When showing appreciation, use the person’s name, and be specific. Tell them what you appreciated, such as how they always meet their deadlines, or treat customers like family. Explain why their action was important to you and thereby helped the business grow.

• Appreciation must feel authentic
Here, there’s no magic bullet, says Dr. White. It comes down to a person’s assessment of your sincerity and consistency, but the best course is to repeatedly express appreciation in terms of the specific actions and character qualities that you value.

By the way, it’s lonely at the top, so the boss, who takes all of the risks of the business on his shoulders and pays the salaries on time also enjoys a word of appreciation, whether it’s a hearty congratulations for landing a new client, or by fostering an individual’s professional growth and advancement.

Colleagues, even from different departments, can habituate themselves to praising each other. The custodian who empties the trash can and cleans up coffee spills deserves a kind word, and administrative personnel can show appreciation to their supervisors who train them for a new task, or help them to troubleshoot.

Appreciation isn’t a one-way street. It’s not even a two-way street. It’s a multi-lane highway and the more you get used to traveling it, the more you will feel like you’re on cruise control.

This Week’s Bottom Line Action Step: Relationships can always be repaired – through genuine recognition and appreciation.

Yitzchok Saftlas

Yitzchok Saftlas is the CEO of Bottom Line Marketing Group, a premier marketing agency recognized for its goal-oriented branding, sales, and recruitment and fundraising techniques. Serving corporate, non-profit and political clientele, Bottom Line's notable clients include: Beth Medrash Govoha, Dirshu and TeachNYS. He can be reached at

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