Business partnerships can be tough and many business partnerships end in toxic battles with owners feuding and reliving the same arguments. Everyone hates it. But even if this has been going on for years, there’s no time like the present to start resolving it.
Battles between the owners of businesses result in over half of startup businesses coming to an early halt. If you’re experiencing this difficulty it’s time to start working on it as a business. I’ve struggled with my relationship with my fellow business owners and with my own relationship to the business I founded, but which I can no longer solely call my own.
When you go into business with someone it’s because you see something in them that will add to what you’re trying to achieve. There is a huge amount of passion and trust, excitement and a shared vision. Remember when you’re building a business with someone you’re not just building a business, you’re building a lifestyle that transcends every part of your life.
In real life, I only know of one business where the co-founders barely knew each other before starting their business. In that case, they met on a forum for people looking to start their own business. They have been running their incredibly successful business together for 20 years. They have been the best of friends who lived together and there have been times over where they haven’t been on speaking terms. In reality, most business owners go into business with each other because they already know each other and already have a strong relationship.
The dynamics of a relationship defines how business owners are going to get on, how they are going to forge their own roles within a business and how they will relate to each other when things inevitably change.
Business owners need to find the right path for themselves within their business of course, but ideally, they need to do it in a way that will support their fellow co-owners, giving them room to be the best they can be and provide the best they can for the business. Of course, in the real world, these relationships are just very hard and very few people will get it right all of the time.
I was once involved with setting up a business with a guy who had set up a business in the 80s. He was trying to replicate that process but it became clear very early on that conflicts would occur due to generational issues. I remember one of the clearest signals that our relationship might not work was his boiling frustration after he left a voicemail only to receive an email in reply.
In GrowTraffic the dynamics of our relationships are coloured by all number of factors including gender roles, family relationships – including mine and Rachel’s marriage – emotional damage from previous employment disasters and the damage done from losing a business partner in the past and having to rebuild. Mental health issues flow in and out of the equation for all of us.
I believe one of the most important things you can do to start resolving these perennial arguments is to start getting to the bottom of the issues causing them. Once you’ve really delved deep into it, it’s time to agree on how you’re going to approach these situations in a mutually respectful manner in the future.
The thing about arguing in a business is it starts to become the normal manner in which you communicate. Before you know it, it can spread within a business causing a toxic culture and factionalism. To resolve it things need to change and time and effort will be required from all parties and their colleagues to ensure the inevitable lapses don’t become new ingrained habits.
Understanding What’s Really Going On Between Business Owners
When I’m in the heat of the moment, I will often explore my thoughts verbally and really this is about exploring ‘how’ I’m feeling rather than ‘what’ I’m feeling. But those things I say are often the things people remember.
The point here is really it’s not necessarily what the argument was about but what triggers the argument. How do the business owners react to each other when they are triggered and what does that tell us about their real underlying motivations?
In all relationships, there are unspoken truths and motivations. Between business owners, it’s important to understand the significance of certain situations and certain conversations so the fundamental issues can be liberated and discussed. Doing this can help free the business owners from those recurring arguments.
To my shame, on numerous occasions, I have picked an argument with one of GrowTraffic’s co-owners in front of our whole team. The thing about arguments between co-owners is it’s not really just about them, it’s also an argument that engulfs everyone in the room and ultimately everyone within the business.
The classic arguments between business owners revolve around one owner feeling the need to be involved in every decision. Often this is because they are the expert within the business and are someone that initially has to be involved with everything and as their role changes, this need expands out to every area of the growing business. There are many reasons why a business owner feels the need to control everything happening within the business. In these situations, the other business owner can feel like they’ll never be able to create the trust required because of a perceived lack of experience.
Conflict is one of the most necessary parts of any relationship. You can’t get on with someone all the time. In healthy relationships these underlying issues are explored and worked on. Day-today this work is done unconsciously, however, often it requires more head on work. This then helps problems be steadily repaired over time. When a relationship is unhealthy, issues are made worse because they aren’t addressed but rather they are regularly triggered, perpetuated and exacerbated.
These arguments tend to recur time and time again. When they come about they will often be explosive and appear to be a huge over-reaction to the thing that triggered them. That’s because the underlying cause is not the reason they are taking place. It’s all in the context.
I feel like we’ve spent a long time papering over certain cracks in our business, at various points, rather than facing up to the issues. But you can’t live with these kinds of issues and they need to be addressed at some point of another. The thing is, once you’ve started to face up to the issues and started to work with your fellow business owners to overcome them, your relationships can become even stronger.
How Do You Know What’s Really Going On?
As discussed, I can try to explore the way I’m feeling and end up saying a load of things that don’t necessarily directly relate to what is really the underlying issues. It’s contradictory and provides unhelpful cues to people who are trying to interact with and help me. But in order to start to work out what’s really going on you need some kind of framework to understand it.
Relationship problems in business partner dynamics generally break down into three areas:
By recognising where the issues arise, business owners can start to understand how they can address their working relationships.
The Power Dynamics Of Co-owners
I believe most business owners set up their business for one of two reasons. They either want more control over their lives or they want to earn more money. Either way, this is about power in some way, either having the power to control their own life and make decisions that impact the way their business operates or the power to earn more money.
When you’ve got multiple business owners, it can be difficult to satisfy all their desire for this kind of power. Often when arguments form, the argument is about the person who made the decision rather than what the decision itself was. These situations can be exacerbated when business owners feel excluded from decision making.
I was speaking to one business owner who was having huge problems with her three business partners. They had set the business up together, but after a while, they had gone their separate ways and she had carried on running the business. But these business partners were not prepared to fully leave the business and would take part in sabotaging activities. Despite being the person running the business for weeks at a time without anyone else’s involvement, these interventions made the business owner feel completely powerless in her business.
Other business partners may threaten to leave a company or may argue about who is more important to the business or who works hardest for the business.
When business owners are struggling with issues of power, it becomes commonplace for them to shoot down anything their business partners suggest, with one putting the other down to try to maintain their position of power. I can also be guilty of doing this in the heat of the moment.
How To Prevent Power Problems From Escalating
If you are struggling with power problems between two business owners you’ve got to start to address the underlying issues. That starts with sharing your experience about how you perceive the power dynamic.
It’s important not to make statements about the other person or to make an assumption about someone else when you’re in a tricky power dynamic. That is a red rag to a bull.
When one party has shared their experience of their understanding of the power dynamic, the other business owner should do the same. This enables them to put them to one side and consider the real motivating factor, allowing them to go on to deal with the detail of the argument. Often no problem really exists in the decision. Of course, this is easier said than done when you’re also in front of a number of employees. Best to have this chat before the meeting starts.
Understanding The Strength Of Business Owners’ Friendships
No matter what our relationship is with someone else, we’d like to think those relationships have some element of friendship involved in them. It’s harder to be mad at a friend than it is to be mad at someone that you actively dislike. Unfortunately, it’s also often easier to be mad at those friends and family who you are closest to. As a family business, we definitely fall into some of the traditional family business tropes.
I’ve known father and son businesses where the father has held the view for decades that his son wasn’t able to take on the business, whilst never actually communicating this, causing hugely destructive strains in the relationship. One of the most interesting things about this hotel chain was the father had inherited his share of teh business from his father as his siblings and cousins had also inherited their shares. So he knew what it was like to go through the process and how he could have helped facilitated succession to his perfectly capable son.
It also doesn’t take a lot to undermine the trust in a friendship when you’re running a business together. Friendships are based on a basic level of trust and once that’s brought into question, the friendship as a whole becomes questionable.
If someone is upset because a decision has been taken, the issue is in the power dynamic. If they are upset because they weren’t involved in making the decision, the problem is one of trust.
How To Resolve Arguments Based on Friendship Issues
If you’re in a situation where a friendship has been strained by the day to day running of a business then you’re in good company. This happens to many people who own a business together. It’s not that they aren’t friends but more that areas of that friendship need reaffirming and probably some work.
It’s important to start by acknowledging what each other is saying and then trying to emphasise it. The key thing here is to try to put yourself in your business partner’s shoes. Would you feel like they do if you found yourself in their scenario and is what they’re feeling is a reasonable reaction to their circumstances?
I always try to be the first to own up to the way I’ve behaved in a certain situation. That way I try to let the other person know they don’t have to convince me about what they’re saying about me so we can move on quickly to resolving the core issue.
We all want to feel we matter and that’s exactly what this is all about. How can you make your business partner know they are valued?
How The Desire For Recognition Affects Business Owner Relations
I am guilty of sometimes doling out the negativity rather than turning up the positivity. I am guilty of bringing the problems in a situation to the table without having the solutions. Especially when something is unexpectedly dropped on me. I can go further on that downward spiral when I don’t feel my views are being valued. It’s a flaw.
In other circumstances, one business owner could be taking credit for everything that the business is doing, which can be incredibly demotivating to another business partner.
There are also circumstances where things just naturally take a certain path and one of the business owners will find that they are the face of the business. In some cases this is fine and the other business owners find their role within the business. However, in many businesses, this can lead to simmering resentment between the business’ owners because recognition and status are a key motivator for many people.
If a desire for recognition is at the heart of your issues you are probably talking about someone with low self-worth and you will need to work out ways to help them build it up.
How To Resolve Arguments Between Business Owners That Is Based On Recognition
If recognition is at the heart of your communication difficulties it’s up to the front-facing business owner to go to pains to make sure everyone around them knows they recognise that the business is not just about them.
The things that shouldn’t be said include: “my business…” or “my team…” or “I’ve done” rather this should always be “our business…” or “our team…” or “our colleagues have done” Inclusivity is especially important when you’re doing forward-facing work, such as PR, guest posts, presentations etc.
If this is at the core of your business partners’ concerns, the best way to think about it is to try to understand why they are seeing things in that way.
It’s important the business agrees on what each business owner’s relationship will be in the promotion of the business. Ultimately, most business owners want to promote themselves and their business. Some of them are more gifted at it than others. You’ve got to be honest about where each other’s strengths and motivations lie but that also means having probing conversations and finding a compromise solution that will work for everyone.
How Business Owners Should Manage Conflicts
If you’ve got to this point, hopefully, you’re already talking through some of the really deep-seated problems, you and your fellow business partners are facing. That’s a great start. You can now start to put some coping mechanisms in place, make allowances where required and develop a plan that will ensure each business owner feels satisfied with their position and role in the business.
You’re still going to find yourself falling out with people in the heat of the moment when emotions run hot. Unfortunately, when we get on the back foot we tend to fall back into those negative and destructive behaviours. Of course, when that happens we can find ourselves accidentally loosing World War Three in the business.
Look For Things That Are Working
It’s easy to find things that aren’t working. These are the things that annoy you. They’re obvious. It takes a bit more concentration and determination to find the things that are working. Take a long hard look at the counterparts you are struggling with and start to appreciate what they’re bringing to the business.
Crucially, look at what they do particularly well. I’m a big fan of lists and this is a great opportunity to make a list of all the great things they do for the business.
Try to do this for a week or maybe even a month.
Focus On The Problems At Hand
When you’ve got an issue that’s being dealt with, it’s really easy to let other areas of disagreement start to feed into your discussion. By the time you’ve gone all around the houses and have discussed everything that you’re annoyed about, you’re going to have forgotten what the initial problem was.
Fix the issues that are in front of you, one at a time and stop there.
Focus On The Circumstances
When problems arise and decisions are being made, they happen in the context of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. A bad decision isn’t necessarily a reflection on a person’s character but rather their unconscious reaction to their circumstances.
Whatever you do, be careful not to characterise your fellow business owner due to a few circumstantial situations that very likely were always out of their control.
How Do You Respond To Being Cornered?
When it comes to me, if cornered, this animal fights back. But there are three options when you’re cornered: Fight, Flight and Freeze.
Understanding how you respond when things start to get heated and how the other business owners in your business respond in that situation is key to ensuring it doesn’t escalate further.
Often if someone withdraws when someone is acting aggressively towards them it can result in the aggressor becoming even more aggressive. Whereas two people who shy away from confrontation may result in low levels of ongoing vitriol, which itself could be as destructive to flaming rows.
Growing Your Business Together
Business owners must continually focus on their relationships with their fellow business partners and regularly review the satisfaction they are achieving from the business. Running a business is hard work at the best of times and in order to benefit from the maximum efforts and passions the owners bring to their own business, it’s important to make sure that their sense of identity is positively projected and reinforced.
You’ve got to take the time to think about these things. If there’s a bit of a problem then it’s going to be uncomfortable and there are going to be some unspoken truths that have to be addressed. It’s on those business owners to find time to deal with the situation. It’s not OK for one of the business owners to refuse to talk these things through because there will never be a resolution.
You’re never going to fix all the issues all at once but just like any problem, your business faces, with a strategy and a plan you can start to overcome the issues you face. It’s important to work out how fellow business owners can complement each other and try to remember that some of the things you or your business partner are struggling with are probably characteristics that were once positive, it’s just the dynamic that’s changed.
If you’ve got to the point where the business owners within your business have decided together or perhaps individually that they want to start improving the situation, it’s likely these people have already become experts in some of the most negative forms of communication. It’s time to learn to appreciate the things your partners do within the business, that you don’t, and start regularly thanking them for it. Because if they didn’t do those things who do you think would have to do it?
We don’t exist in a vacuum and we have a mutual impact on each other to the extent that we affect the way we behave around each other. We are able to behave in different ways with different people depending on the dynamics of the relationships and the perspectives of the individuals. The great thing is this is something that can be worked on.
If there are recurring communication difficulties or underlying issues between the owners of a business it can be difficult for the individuals in those roles to affect a big enough change quickly enough. To that end, it might be advisable to bring someone else into the equation to help explore and resolve the tensions. This could be a professional business coach, a therapist or one of the other business owners or perhaps even a well-placed employee who is appointed to help. If you do get someone else involved you’re going to find yourself accountable in a way you might not be if you were just answering to yourself and your fellow business partner.
All relationships change over time and they should do and they always need work. But there are always ways that relationships can be improved and figuring out there is a problem and being able to define it and talk about it is the best place to start resolving the issues.
All these things will take time and commitment. You’re going to have to use some planning, perhaps some training and support and probably quite a lot of humour to get through the initial phase of resolving these issues.
Where the owners of a business put emphasis on improving their own relationships, those business partners are going to be able to work together more harmoniously. This will help individuals create a renewed clarity and help individuals work together and communicate with each other, meaning their efforts can be focused on growing the business and not on their perceived problems with their fellow business owners.