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How to turn around a toxic relationship

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It is almost inevitable that every project professional, at some point in their career, will face the challenge of dealing with a toxic relationship. It might not even be your fault; it may be on a project you have ‘inherited’. Or it could be a sudden, unexpected event when a great relationship turns overnight into a toxic mix.  

Our first, instinctive response can be the ‘fight or flight’ behaviour that is often talked about in evolutionary science. Of course, neither response will serve you well. Ignoring the problem (flight) means it will continue to get worse. If, instead, you opt for ‘fight’, then a small local difficulty is likely to escalate into all-out warfare.  

We’ve probably all seen examples of the impact of both these options. Instead, what I would suggest is to create a framework that looks to the future, identifying what solution you would want to see, and to think about ways to recalibrate and reset.  

A few key issues that will help people engage with your efforts to turn around a toxic relationship are as follows. 

WIIFT (what’s in it for them?)  

This is a crucial component of success. Why will people want to change? How can you help them to recognise the powerful impact there will be on the relationship between you when it moves beyond the toxic stage? Note: even smart operators often forget to change their mindset from WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). The crucial dimension is all about others and finding ways to develop a great partnership. 

Move on from the ‘blame game’ 

Each side may be super-keen, if not obsessed, to prove who is at fault. Instead, move towards a new, more positive mindset. What do each of us need to do to improve our work relationship? What will good look like? Both sides need to be willing to change, or the discussion will go nowhere. Talk about and assess this in the early stages of any discussion so each side is clear how important this will be for success. Don’t frame the problem as ‘your problem’, but talk in more inclusive terms, such as ‘us’, ‘our’ and ‘together, we can…’. 

Start small 

Don’t be too ambitious (or get too complicated) at first with your negotiating. Identifying simple, quick wins will encourage everyone to continue. Similarly, focus on the key issues that will make a difference. There’s little point in asking everyone to attend joint meetings if little happens as a result of those meetings. 

Find supporters to help you 

There will be key individuals around you who are respected by both sides. Think of them as mentors or relationship coaches. Tap into their knowledge, energy and expertise to help bring you together. I have seen this approach used equally well by inexperienced project managers as well as at the most senior (and sometimes the most intransigent) levels in an organisation. We all have people, or ‘influencers’, whom we look up to, whether it is the departmental director, more experienced colleagues, a chief executive or our previous boss. You don’t have to solve this all alone – ask for experts to help you change the situation.  

Work smarter, not harder 

Not every toxic relationship can be turned around, but most can. Work smarter, not harder, at the issue. Rather than confrontation, explore the power and possibilities of what change you can both agree for the future. 

Sometimes, there is the poisonous effect of people (and cultures) who are blind to the power of a win-win situation. Instead, they only recognise win-lose; in other words, that they are driven to win while everyone else will be the losers.  

Power dynamics also make a difference here, and if the individual or people involved hold more influence than you, this can stymie the potential of resolution. However, a clever negotiator can create a solution that represents and encapsulates a win-win. Similarly, some smart ‘offline’ discussions with other key players can make all the difference.  

APM’s Project would love you to get in touch and share your stories about your own toxic work relationships and how you solved them. Please email Editor Emma De Vita at  

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