Work Relationships - Disagreeing With Your Partner & Keeping the Peace
I have a relationship question for you but it doesn't involve my personal relationship, it involves my business relationship. I saw that you gave some friendship advice and family advice and I am hoping you can shed some light on this for me. It is a relationship like any other one. I have my own business with a partner and we've been in business together for 4 years. We started our own business together just before the economic landscape fell apart in this country. Luckily we're not out of business though. We've been able to make some good decisions and shift some of our work model in a way that has kept us afloat. Right now we would have a hard time finding jobs again because of the way things are. I want to keep at this business venture because it's the smart thing to do. However, here's my problem. My partner and I disagree on almost everything. He and I each have wives and we even disagree on how to be with our families. He cheats on his wife, something I would never do. He has kids, and talks about my wife and I not having kids as if there's something wrong with us for not wanting that kind of life. Not that he seems happy with that choice. But anyway, we disagree on religion and politics. We disagree on just about everything and that includes how to do a lot of our business. In a way our disagreements about business has helped us. We are each coming at a problem from a different angle so even though we fight we balance each other out. We have different philosophies about bill paying and credit and just about everything. We went into business together because our field is very specific and we happen to be two of the best people in our industry in our area. It made sense for us to team up. I think the fact that we are still in business during this recession says a lot. We have 12 employees who would be really be in trouble too if we don't make this business work. I really want to stick it out and stick together but the fighting gets pretty intense. Do you have any suggestions for how to keep a business partnership like ours from getting into trouble with these fights? Thanks.
Thanks for your email. You're right,a work relationship is a relationship just like any other. One of the trickiest parts about the work relationship is that for much of us, it's a fake relationship.
You'll have many kinds of relationships in your life. The wife you chose, the brothers you didn't, the friends you find, the neighbors you make do with. Within the fabric of our relationships, some of them are an end to a means. Your work relationships are a good example of that. So is the relationship you maintain with your teachers, or with your children's teachers. There's a certain amount of fakeness. You don't let your hair down and behave completely like your most intimate and honest self. There is a pretense.
You have enough relationships where you can be completely yourself. Your friends, your wife, the people you choose to hang out with. You decide how close you'll be with family, with neighbors. You have a great deal of control over many of the people that are in your life.
Your work partner on the other hand, is not that kind of relationship. Just like if you had children, and you were called to a PTA meeting or a parent teacher conference. You don't sit down with those people and feel the need to tell them your views on politics or to fight with them about things you disagree on. Instead you would enter into those meetings with a certain amount of professionalism and personal distance. It's in your best interest and your kid's best interest for those meetings to go well. You don't fight unless it's on topic and important. You don't act like you would with a best bud.
The same goes for several different professional relationships in your life. Maybe they aren't work-related professional, but they are necessary relationships that you have an interest in maintaining. Your neighbor, your dog walker, your hair dresser, your lawyer, your accountant, your UPS driver. These are relationships in your life that do not necessitate your being very candid and direct and honest about things that are not the business of any of these people. If your UPS driver says, "Hi, how are you?" You don't say, "Well my wife and I are having problems in the bedroom and I just bounced the mortgage check, and I never got along with my father and I think it's because of our political differences." These all may very well be true, and important, but they simply have nothing to do with the relationship you have with your UPS driver. You just don't go there.
You said yourself you decided to go into business with your partner because the two of you are tops in your given field. You did not say you went into business with him because you like him, or you can be yourself with him, or because it was important to you to have a very relaxed and personable work day. You made a business decision to partner with him, based on good business, and nothing more. That's fine. Now, all you have to do is keep as much personal life out of it as you can.
The line is blurred for people in business for themselves. When you go into a big office every day, it's clearer when to put the work-face on and be less personal and more professional. When you break that mold and have your own business, it's not so clear. You want to be comfortable and when you don't have a boss anymore it's easy to let the guard down. You'll just have to remind yourself to put it back up a little bit.
This isn't a bad thing. You said that when you and your partner fight about work issues it's actually good for the business because you're bringing in differing views about things. That's a great attitude. And it's probably very true.
The one thing you said that festers in me a little is that your partner cheats on his wife. I think you should be very careful about that. For one thing, someone who would lie to and cheat on the person that is supposed to be their life partner, is most likely someone that would also lie to and cheat on a lesser relationship, like business partner. It says a great deal about who they are as a person. You also have another layer of complication here. You know too much. He has to be aware that you know of his extra marital activities. I am bringing this up because you said he speaks about you and your wife and your decision not to have children as if he looks down on that, while he is cheating on his wife so can't be that happy with his life choices. This leads me to believe his comments to you have some underlying subterfuge.
If I were you I'd be careful. He's probably a little nervous that you know things about him that could harm him. He could want to have the same kind of information on you, and therefore presses personal points to see what he can dig up. He may even attempt leading you astray with him, or just making it look as if you have. Engaging him on that level isn't going to be wise.
You need to stop discussing personal things with your partner. Politics, religion, your wife, his affairs, just stop these conversations. Keep all conversations about business as much as you can. If he wanders try to bring it back on focus without looking obvious. If he forces an issue, be the bigger person and just shut up. He doesn't need to know how you disagree or how you feel about anything, other than work related topics.
Extricating yourself from this office or workplace personal conversation isn't going to be easy. You have to be the bigger person, the effort maker, the one that changes the subject or walks away. Being obvious about it is nothing but a challenge. You have to be the smarter tool in the workshed and make it look normal. If you do have to discuss something other than business to be polite, find something to agree on, or at least something he thinks you agree on. Baseball? Racing? Your dogs? The weather? There must be something benign that you can kick around once in a while. Or something you can at least go along with to make it seem that way.
If it doesn't feel too contrived, you can also add to the smoothing by complimenting business moves he's made. If he had an idea that has panned out bring it up again and again. Pat him on the back. Let him know you see how great his thinking was. Really you're just playing it as you would in a corporate office. You're demonstrating that you're a team player, and that you can keep your work day professional, and separate from your private life. Just make sure whatever it is you are celebrating for him, is a work related thing. Don't compliment him on a big fish he caught, compliment him on a big client he landed, or acknowledge the assist on one you handled. If he sees you value him as a partner, he may begin to forget about how little you value him outside of the workspace.
Wanting to keep your business in tact is a smart move. If you two really are the best at what you do in your area, then you'll either be partners, or competition. As you stated in today's economy it's hard for anyone to stay afloat. The last thing you want is to split your business in half, and to have to fight him for every client or job you're trying to keep. The partnership is probably the smarter move in this economy. So just do what you can to keep it professional and make it work. Once you really see it for the relationship it is and not the one you may have wanted it to be, this will be clearer and easier. It's still work. It's still your work face. It's still a professional persona you're supposed to be putting forward.
When the inevitable happens and you do get sucked into a conversation about something other than work, think about it as a business investment. Do not think about it as a place where you have to be yourself, where you have to argue until you win. There's no winning if you and your partner are constantly fighting, especially over things that aren't work related.