• Richard Hughes

How Not To Murder Your Business Partner

Updated: Feb 1

The old adage goes that an unhappy business partnership is like an unhappy marriage - but with one exception - it is cheaper to get a divorce than to end a business partnership.

That is a tough one, especially when you have put up your time, capital, creativity and reputation into making the business work.

Many people stuck in an unhappy business partnership ask themselves: 'if we didn’t argue so much, would the company would be more successful?' Or another scary thought, 'is this tension the creative grit we need?'

Without doubt it takes courage, determination and a bit of luck to set up a business, but the key here is to know each others strengths and to work together in a collaborative way.

Of course a ‘clash of egos’ is bound to happen now and again but when partnerships break down it can become difficult to separate what is ‘ego’ and what is standing your ground. As one MD told me: ‘if I hadn’t stood my ground I would have been undermined and sidelined even further. It wasn’t enough for my business partner to take all the glory, they had to annihilate me in the process.’

The professional and personal cost of this kind of behaviour can be high, and the outcome is often predictable.

There is a long list of unhappy business partnerships - most ended acrimoniously, few emerged unscathed and the repercussions can last a lifetime: 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.

So when things go toxic, what are the options? Clearly, one is to walk away. When your mental and physical health is being pushed to its limit, this has to be a consideration.

But with so much at stake, is there another way?

I have come to believe there is. But this involves knowing yourself and understanding why you respond the way you do to other people’s behaviour. Trust me, this is much more productive than trying to work out what makes your business partner tick.

The temptation might be to do just that of course. After all, most self-help books focus on the problem; we’ve all seen the titles about ‘narcissists’ and ‘psychopaths’. But the fact is not everyone experiences these kind of characters in the same way. At the end of the day, this is about you, and why you find the relationship difficult.

So what can you do? Here are three important considerations, based on my own experience and that of the many MDs and CEOs I work with.

First up, do not be tempted to label your business partner a ‘narcissist’ or a 'psychopath' however tempting that is. It will just put their back up. Also it fails to explain the relational dynamic between you.

Do not demand the other person change. That can be experienced as domineering and at worst bullying. Rather, as 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.’

Finally, I would recommend business partner counselling. Often in small businesses there is no HR department to mediate and being at the top can be lonely. It may be a decision you decide between you or it may be something you do by yourself, but counselling allows you to be heard, acknowledged and validated. Through this process you will begin to understand why you respond the way you do to your business partner’s actions. This will not only benefit your business relationships but personal relationships too. It is a win win all round.

And remember, in a business partnership as in any relationship, you deserve decency, kindness and consideration - this is non-negotiable - it is not a bonus or a perk, it is your starting point for running a successful business. #business


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