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  • Tamar Balkin

I thought it was going so well... How did I miss the signs that the partnership was going awry?

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

“So don't go breaking my heart I won't go breaking your heart Don't go breaking my heart" Elton John (click here for the song)


It's Valentine’s day today, and I have been contemplating all week so should I be writing about how to find the perfect business partner, or how to notice when things are going awry in a partnership and what to do about it. Whilst listening to Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow, I made my decision. In the introduction to the book he described his research and business partnership with Amos Tverski with such honestly, fondness and joy that I felt unable to write about how to form such a partnership.

“The Kahneman and Tversky partnership was extraordinary in terms of its scientific impact—they are the Lennon and McCartney of social science—and even now, when joint work is increasingly common in academia, enduring teams like theirs are extremely rare.”

I am also well aware that clients and HR managers typically contact me when things are going wrong and they want to avoid the mediators, financiers and or lawyers becoming involved. When any business partnership starts to go awry there are multiple effected parties: The investor: who sees businesses from the outside and has influence The partner: who is in the middle of the relationship The employee: who is watching from “below” The clients or customers: who are viewing from the outside. The best friend, or relative: who is watching from the outside. Despite your perspective it is likely that you have a vested interest in the success of the business partnership, even if it is purely financial. The common questions I am asked include: What went wrong? What are the warning signs? What if anything can I do to help? So, what can go wrong? Small Irritations That Accumulate Over Time When these upsetting behaviours hit a critical mass, the other partner may be unable to tolerate them anymore. Evidence of Unacceptable Behaviours That Were Not Revealed at the Beginning. Eg: Large debts that must be eventually paid out of mutual resources; Past affiliations with less-than-desirable characters who might crop up again. The Emergence of Mutually Exclusive Important Needs Diminishing Illusions: Eg: A person who is especially careful about not overspending can, over time, appear stingy and cheap Power Struggles: If power struggles persist, then there’s a shift from being a team to adversaries on opposite sides of the playing field. Too soon, each partner will try to save themselves at the expense of the other’s needs. Becoming superficial: Fearful of scarring the relationship both parties stay with comfortable and non-threatening words and behaviours, either turning to others to have the “difficult conversations” or avoiding them altogether. Boredom: Either with their role in the business, or a lack of independent growth. Remember many entrepreneurs thrive on variety and challenge, however not only are aspects of work routine, but also variability and inspiration does not always come from external event, sometimes one needs to source it for oneself. Escalating Misunderstandings and Misassumptions: Familiarity may lead to the assumption that one knows everything about the other person and therefore often the basic skill of listening carefully without jumping to conclusions, is forgotten. External Stressors: are and inevitable part of life and work. If partners cannot triumph over them, alone and together they will and begin to find fault with each other’s reactions and responses. This in turn erodes trust and mutual problem solving. What are the warning signs?

Typically you will notice a change in behaviour for example:

  • Negative interpersonal behaviour like incivility, shouting etc

  • Decrease in patience, increases in hostility, and frustration.

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Withdrawal either physically, intellectually or emotionally.

  • Stagnation: On the surface, the partnership may seem a magically compatible, quietly successful union, but the lack of excitement and energy observed can be a powerful warning sign that there is trouble brewing. The partners within it may have become robotic and predictable creatures who soon learn each other’s every phrase, action, and thought. They no longer need to pay much attention to know what is going on. There are no surprises, no challenges, and no growth.

  • Positive emotions: especially when they seem at odds with the current status of the business or with the typical emotional level of the individual.

What can you do?

Decide if you wish to repair or exit gracefully- it is recommended to discuss this with those you trust who are external to the situation and have no biases. (see my blog on decision making)

If you want to repair the partnership determine your timeframe of tolerance for change and what repair will look like for you.

  1. Take a look in the mirror: ie Look at yourself first: We have much greater control over our own behaviour than that of others. Do not ruminate but use your self awareness and feedback from others to ascertain where your behaviour has been falling short and take steps to rectify what you can.

  2. Make time to meet your colleague partner boss etc and have the “difficult conversation” Don’t jump to any conclusions and have an open conversation. This is obviously easier said than done, but if you want to avoid escalation or souring of your relationship then it is best to do the following preparation: Get into the right Mindset: Remember you have a hunch and a vested interest in the success of this partnership. So it is critical that you take the advice of Celeste Headley and suspend judgement, and simply be curious. Acknowledge that this is difficult to do when you are emotionally invested in the business and if you need to, seek help from a trusted adviser to prepare. Remind yourself that you care about them and the business and that is why you are having the conversation ie the vision and purpose. Don’t expect them to react well or to tell you that they are taking action, the aim initially is to share your concerns and allow them time and space to think about what you have said. Nothing more.. Most importantly be polite. Context: find a good location and ensure you both have the time, and privacy to talk openly. Remember complex conversations are best done when one is refreshed and not hungry. Content: If appropriate explain what you have already started to do differently and why. Then simply just describe the change in behaviours that you have noticed then be silent and allow them to explain. Do not be defensive or judgemental about their answers. Together plan the next steps. Then go back, think about what else you can do and have another conversation (ie repeat step 2 and 3) Remember as I articulated, in last week’s blog, don’t be afraid to ask for help, you are definitely not the first or last person to be in this predicament.


References: more are available on request't+go+breaking+my+heart+lyrics&rlz=1C5CHFA_enAU860AU860&oq=doint+go&aqs=chrome.3.69i57j0l7.2871j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 THE TWO FRIENDS WHO CHANGED HOW WE THINK ABOUT HOW WE THINK By Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Thaler The New Yorker, December 7, 2016 Recruitment and selection overview:

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