Among the often-imparted bits of wisdom offered to young people entering their professional careers is to avoid burning bridges. Leaving untenable business situations with poise and composure helps from tarnishing one’s business reputation. Yet today, the striking upswing in bridge burning has become another fallout from cancel culture and the stress and strain of our discordant world. Challenges to businesses and the people running them are now rampant.
In the past, burning a bridge in business usually only occurred as a last resort. While words could be exchanged and actions taken that strained relations, generally the parties involved took measures to mend and continue the relationship.
Attitudes that lead to bridge burning and cancel culture stem from a lack of emotional intelligence. Those who develop emotional intelligence are able to recognize and manage what they feel. They can also read others’ emotions and pick up on social cues.
When human conflict elicits a spark for potentially burning a bridge, those who lack emotional intelligence fan the flame that leads to an inferno.
How do we avoid this charged environment? How do we make bridge burning a last resort? Consider these approaches:
1. Slow down.
When emotions begin to rise in any stressful situation, our best course of action is to slow down our reaction. It’s immensely difficult to slow down when emotions and tensions are running high because it requires us to pause at a time when our emotions don’t want us to pause. Emotional intelligence lets us become aware of our emotions, categorize them, and manage them. We identify when we’re experiencing our fight or flight response, which often occurs when we feel threatened.
In an event where our emotions begin to crescendo toward a point where a bridge may potentially be burned, it’s important to slow down, take a step back, and be the one to back away from the escalating situation. By sharing that our emotions are becoming charged and calling for a time out or asking the other party the cause of their emotional reaction, the heat of the moment can pass. By slowing down and employing our emotional intelligence, we can often refocus the conversation and save it from irrevocably burning a bridge.
2. Gain composure.
Successfully slowing down allows time for us to regain our composure. We may still experience emotions, but they will be much more manageable, keeping communications more civil. The key here is remaining composed during the remainder of our engagement with the other person. While emotions are still present, composure should always remain our goal.
One way to maintain composure is to focus on what we may be able to change or contribute positively. Ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective and remain present while listening attentively. Clarify anything that’s unclear and come to terms with their perspective. Whether we agree or disagree, keeping our composure while offering the other party a chance to explain will aid the overall discussion. Taking a chance to help the other person consider our perspective as well can add an element of understanding to the conversation.
3. Make sacrifices.
If a relationship is important to us or our organization, we may need to make some sacrifices to keep that bridge intact. It may involve meeting the other person halfway or arriving at a compromise.
Depending on the situation, we must decide how much we’re willing to let go to keep the relationship intact. Making this kind of decision requires us to stay composed and to understand our own emotions as well as the other party’s.
4. Decide if a bridge must be burned.
If we’ve slowed down, managed our emotions, gained composure, attempted to understand the other party’s perspective, and tried to compromise but are still getting nowhere, it may be time to burn a bridge. We may decide that this bridge doesn’t mean enough to continue preserving. Our decision, however, must be made while composed and emotionally stable. Permanent decisions such as these require us to fully understand what’s in our own and our organization’s best interest.
Burning a bridge isn’t a desirable outcome, but it can sometimes become the only option left on the table. It should be a last resort after we’ve tried everything else.
If we make decisions mindfully, with an awareness of our own and the other person’s emotional experience, we create value in our relationships. Keeping a relationship and seeking a recovery point is almost always better than burning a bridge. But we must do what’s necessary to protect either our own or our team’s physical and/or emotional health.
Brian Smith, PhD, is founder and senior managing partner of IA Business Advisors, a management consulting firm that has worked with more than 18,000 CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers and employees worldwide. Together with his daughter, Mary Smith, he has authored his latest book, “Individual Advantages: Be the “I” in Team“.