We all start businesses with good intentions. ‘We’ll both work hard. We‘re good friends and we respect each other. Our combined skills will be needed for the business to be successful. A partnership will help the business grow more quickly.’
Then life happens.
One owner decides to get married and children come soon after – meaning no more late nights. Another has to travel to deal with aging parents. One is in a car accident or develops a debilitating disease. Someone just gets bored or tired of doing what they’re doing. Or one gets caught up in a new venture that seems like a better opportunity or captures his/her passion.
One partner sees himself putting more and more time into the business and perceives the other puts in less and less. Perhaps she even takes more than her fair share monetarily out of the business. A ‘temporary’ situation that evokes compassion from a generous partner stretches out and becomes more and more permanent, making the generous partner feel taken advantage of. Sometimes tension develops. Comments turn into barbs. There are passive aggressive actions taken. Blaming occurs. Employees have a hard time functioning in this environment and productivity declines. Families have to bear the burden of your persistent stress and distraction.
There’s not enough money or maybe too much.
Business partner relationships also cycle downward when business gets slow and money is scarce. Stress levels go up. Overwhelm and fear of loss of income set in. Alternatively, perhaps the business is doing really well and greediness takes over.
Communication spirals downward
I’ve seen situations like this occur. One partner offers a comment (even a fairly innocuous comment). The other partner takes it the wrong way, feels offended and says something nasty back. Then the first partner may up the ante and respond with their own jab, maybe not right away. They may save it for just the right moment later when it has the most impact. Then all future comments are construed to be condescending or intentionally diminishing, dismissing or disempowering. This becomes the new normal. It’s stressful and demands a lot of energy. Partners are exhausted; employees are walking around on eggshells. Families suffer.
What’s the brain science behind this?
Our brains have several sections and we can choose which one will be in charge in most non-survival situations. The amygdala is often called the reptilian brain or the lizard brain and is located at the back of the head. It’s the earliest part of our brain to develop and its main job is to make sure we survive. It’s in charge of flight or fright, and self defense. It often goes on the offense as a means of self-protection. When we feel threatened, the amygdala comes up with ways to lash back at the perceived aggressor, blame the other person to get us off the hook, protect our ego, make us look good, do harm to our attacker by diminishing and disempowering him. The amygdala is focused on our own self and safety.
We also have a prefrontal cortex, the executive brain that sits behind our forehead. It’s the newest part of the brain that is visionary, open to discover, strategic, exploratory, celebratory, and appreciative. It collaborates, connects, communicates and co-creates with others. It’s focused on people and things outside ourselves. It’s built for connection, and so is open to risk and vulnerability.
We have the ability to observe our own behavior and change what part of our brain we’re putting in charge of our words and our behaviors. Some people feel consumed by their emotions and react to circumstances in their environments as if they have no choice. However, those same people can learn to recognize their own patterns and choose to react from their prefrontal cortexes. They can learn new habits which means they can train their brains using neuroplasticity to create and reinforce new nerve pathways.
What’s more is that MRI research shows that when you are functioning from your prefrontal cortex, the mirror neurons in your conversation partner’s brain start functioning from her prefrontal cortex. You have the power to change the whole conversation to a prefrontal cortex based conversation by just getting it started.
What’s A Business Partner To Do?
Here are three recommendations, two for everyday conversation and one for a once-a-year overall evaluation (more often if needed).
- Show appreciation. This automatically, if it’s authentic, engages the prefrontal cortex. When I work with executives, I start each meeting by asking them to share what they appreciate about each other. It’s often admiration for something he did well since the last meeting. You’d be surprised at how often the person being appreciated was totally unaware that his action had a positive impact. This exercise powerfully creates communication and palpable bonds.
When you hear something coming from your business partner that sounds like you could take offense at it, stop. Breathe. Tell yourself that you want to have a prefrontal-cortex-based conversation. Don’t attach any meaning to what was said.
Instead ask an exploratory question, one for which you have no answer. Make it a discovery question of what the other person’s viewpoint actually is. Really listen. Honor your partner with your complete attention. Maybe there are some valid points to discuss. Give him the benefit of any doubt. Make the conversation about learning more about each other and deepening the relationship. You don’t have to agree. Just listen. You validate each other with your full focused attention. You show that you care. He then reacts from a place of safety and acknowledgement, not from fear and retaliation. The way things are said and how you both felt when saying them is remembered way longer than the content of the conversation.
- In order to stay in good communication about the business and your partnership, I recommend you do the following every year as part of the planning process for the next year. Re-evaluate your business relationship and the big picture of how you work together to direct the picture. If you decided up front in your original partnership agreement that you were 50-50 owners, then the questions you would ask every year would include:
Are we both putting in the same amount of time and effort to grow the business?
Are we both investing the same financial or other resources into the business?
Are we both taking equal amounts of money/perks/benefits out of the business?
Are we both still happy with our arrangement?
Do we both enjoy the roles we’re each playing in the business?
As we go through this planning process what might change about the roles we play? (considering growth goals, restructuring goals, etc)
What do we each have going on in our lives that impacted the business last year?
What do we anticipate will be going on in our lives in the coming year that might impact the business and each other?
How do we plan for our personal monetary needs as our lives change? How can our business planning provide for that?
It may be that you both decide together to make changes to your original partner agreement based on the discussion around these questions. Don’t be afraid to modify the agreement every year if new situations arise. In fact, forward thinking partners build into their partnership agreement that they will have an annual partnership evaluation conversation.
Staying in good communication and keeping it fair will contribute to the growth and stability of your business, the productivity level of your employees, and your own health and stress level. The relationship between you and your partner forms the basis of the culture of your company. It impacts all areas of your business including your company’s bottom line and your personal income.