The old adage goes that a bad business partnership is like a bad marriage – but with one exception – it’s cheaper to get a divorce than to get out of a bad business partnership.
I should know, I’ve been there.
Back in 2006, when I co-founded a TV production company – it was the most exciting time of my life. There were plenty of highs and lows – it nearly finished us.
Not long into the partnership – approximately two weeks – I began to question if we were compatible at all. That’s a tough one when you’ve put up 50% of the capital, let alone all your time and creativity into making the business work.
As the years went on – yup we stuck at it for a long time – I would ask myself, perhaps if we didn’t argue so much, maybe the company would be more successful? Or – another scary thought – was this tension the creative ‘grit’ we needed? Maybe we needed to row and fight to be successful!
It’s a common story. There’s a long list of dysfunctional business partnerships. Some are more successful than others. At one end of the spectrum, Rolls and Royce hated each other, Bill Gates and Paul Allen went their separate ways in circumstances that have never been fully explained, Martha Stewart ended up ‘buying out’ her first business partner Norma Collier.
All relationships are co-created. As the Hollywood producer Robert Evans once said, ‘there are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.’
Better business partnerships are not about trying to change someone – if you go down this route you’ll just end up frustrated. The only thing you can change is your response to someone else’s behaviour.
In any business partnership, the business has to come first – after all there is no ‘U’ or ‘I’ in partner. One partner may feel more comfortable leading meetings or negotiations, but if they take all the credit and denigrate, that’s when problems start.
A business is like a baby. It needs nurturing and caring for and if you do that, it will grow and at some point you might even be able to let go.
With all of this in mind, I’d advocate business partner counselling for anyone dealing with a tricky business relationship.
Because when business partnerships go wrong the fall out impacts everything. Working with a counsellor not only benefits your business relationship, but personal relationships too. From my work with business leaders, I know that the personal cost of having a bad business relationship is devastating.
Remember – in a partnership as in any relationship – you deserve respect, decency and kindness.
As for my own story, through counselling I began to understand better the part I played in the business partnership. This helped both of us eventually make a decision to sell the company – to a global media group – a good outcome for both of us.
Here are a few thoughts on approaching a tricky business partnership:
When people talk about their business partners, I hear things like: ‘They’re lazy’ … ‘they’re a psycho’ … ‘they’re a control freak’.
It’s fashionable to label people. There are dozens of self-help books with titles like How To Spot A Psychopath and Is Your Boss A Narcissist? This isn’t particularly helpful.
On the one hand, we could argue that anyone who has what it takes to become a boss probably has some narcissistic tendencies. Have a look at the DSM-5, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by doctors to define Narcissistic Personality Disorder – yup, we all have a few of those criteria.
People with ‘narcissistic tendencies’ can be ‘bullying’, or have an ‘inflated sense of self’ and a ‘domineering personality’ but they may also be ‘extremely competent’, ‘confident’ and I’m sorry to say this, but often ‘right’. It’s easy to be critical of the person with narcissistic tendencies but current thinking positions it not so much as a ‘disorder’, rather an outcome of anxiety, depression, and insecurity.
As for psychopaths – there isn’t a diagnostic and statistical definition for psychopathy!
So with this in mind, you have two options.
a) Quit. Run for the hills. Change your phone number / email. It is an option and may be necessary ultimately.
b) Accept that your business partner is fearful, anxious and experiencing high levels of stress too. Notice how you respond to their behaviour and if you find it overwhelming, don’t demand the other person change, find support outside the business.
How do you communicate with your business partner? Do you go into battle finely tuning your argument so that the attack becomes meaner and more personal? Or perhaps you run and hide, avoiding all conflict at any the cost? These common responses are called ‘fight or flight’ – they’re familiar to all of us and some theorists believe they are partly a genetic response from when we were cavemen on the Savannah – useful for not getting eaten by a sabre tooth tiger!
But let’s face it, we’ve moved on from those times. We all need to communicate smarter.
The main point about communication is to ‘listen without being defensive’. When your partner comes back at you with another attack, keep listening and own your own part of the argument – and if that means apologising, make sure the other person hears that. And then ask them, ‘what can I do to make things better?’
Relationship psychotherapist Esther Perel reminds us: ‘people fight because they want to feel that they matter, that the other person respects what they’re going through. A simple ‘I can see where you’re coming from’ is deeply validating. When your experience is acknowledged, you feel sane. The two of you don’t have to agree, but you do have to acknowledge that there’s another person who experiences the event very differently from you.’
If you respond with your own argument the ‘cognitive noise’ will just get louder and louder and no one will be heard. The key here is to calm the noise without shutting anyone down.
A big anxiety for many people in business is about being ‘too emotional’ especially in a professional environment.
This is an age old problem. Aristotle proposed that the problem is not with emotion, but with its appropriateness and expression. In his treatise, Rhetoric, emotion is passion and that goes a long way in business – it’s very much at the heart of how a barrister works.
From current neuro-scientific research we know that emotion is vital for consolidating memory and therefore learning – so we can’t just ignore it.
Talking about feelings, involves taking a risk – it’s potentially very scary. But when we do that we come from a place of authenticity. When we’re authentic there’s a chance that something can heal.
And if the rage, accusations and anger continues? One simple word: ‘Enough’. Let your business partner you will not put up with bullying behaviour. It’s then up to you to decide what to do next, but if it continues, walking away has to be an option.
And finally … Time to end it?
This is the tough one, as the truth is, all business relationships come to an end eventually. This is something anyone setting out needs to acknowledge and accept right from the go. Of course in an ideal world, both parties would be satisfied with the ending – and have planned for it – but this might not always be possible.
Making a decision to walk away is a huge step. It can be liberating, devastating – and at times both. Take time to explore those feelings. As for any decision, ‘strike whilst the iron is cold’.
Moving on from the decision, the aim is to achieve a ‘good enough’ ending. What does that mean? An aggressive, financially driven ending will have consequences – the fall out of which will probably last years. An alternative is to walk away with something, anything, but most importantly your wellbeing.
The future is a new chapter. It’s courageous to choose that.