Make your partnership work

Business partners often behave like dysfunctional spouses. There's a better way.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(Fortune Small Business) – Successful partnerships account for some of the best companies in entrepreneurial history. Think Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard or Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins. These dynamic duos harnessed shared vision and complementary talents to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

But like all intense relationships, partnerships aren’t always sunshine and profit. In last month’s column I mentioned Mike F., one of three partners in a boutique financial services firm. Mike, you’ll recall, felt trapped. Pressing on one side was his loyalty to clients and staff and a dog-with-a-bone refusal to let go of the hand that beats him; on the other, a growing, healthy urge to get away from Don, the firm’s passive, nonconfrontational founder, and Lorraine, their self-aggrandizing, melodramatic colleague.

As a client, you see what the glossy brochure depicts: high-level professionalism and concierge service. Roiling underneath are power politics, smoldering resentments and rabid disrespect.

The three partners are perfectly right for one another in all the wrong ways. Mike, raised not to expect anything for himself, is Bob Cratchit, toiling to make sure everything and everybody is taken care of while the midnight oil burns low. He’s perfectly suited to the firm’s culture, which outwardly valorizes self-sacrifice. Lorraine is like Lucy from Peanuts, perpetually snatching the football away from the hapless Charlie Brown just before he kicks it. Lorraine’s personal addiction: making herself out as the victim of Mike’s incompetence, then swooping in to save the day. At the top of this pyramid sits Don, always in late and out early, a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, “why should I do it when you can do it for me” kind of boss.

If this sounds like a nasty situation, it is. But you’d never know that if you hired them, because it all fits together seamlessly. They work in this perverse disharmony like a well-oiled Wankel rotary, each doing his or her part to propel the others around and around. Whatever his shortcomings as a leader, Don was smart enough to hire Mike and Lorraine. Intuition told him it would be productive to pit them against each other like piglets jockeying for a teat. Lorraine’s cruel mistreatment of Mike only incites him to do more, trying to outdo her and regain some advantage. And Don’s noninvolvement in Mike and Lorraine’s mutually demeaning shenanigans and his callous disregard for their 100-hour weeks just push them harder, with each trying in vain to land his praise.

In business terms, this partnership works: The company makes money and the clients are satisfied. The problem is that Don, Mike and Lorraine aren’t. They’re stuck, but they don’t know exactly why, or how to change things. So now what? Obviously, the bad behavior has to stop (or at least there has to be less of it), and communication must improve. But the underlying problem is that Don, Mike and Lorraine relate to one another like warring parents, children and siblings, not like professional colleagues.

The partners must acknowledge boundaries, be respectful and fair, give due praise and appropriate criticism and transcend inhibitions to frank discussion. Don, as managing partner, must confront the difficulties he has being an effective leader and exercise real authority (not waver between authoritarianism and absenteeism). This is already a tall order, but Mike and Lorraine may have the hardest road ahead. To begin, both must stop trying to make Don be somebody he’s not – caring or communicative. Of the roles he can (and should) successfully fill in the firm, surrogate father isn’t one of them.

If Mike weren’t so invested in fighting Lorraine for Daddy’s attention, he would probably start to see her legitimate contributions. He might also stand a better chance of helping Don recognize his tremendous stamina and skill. Lorraine, in turn, must stop making Mike into roadkill while racing to win Don’s approval. Note to Lorraine: Driving a truck through the firm isn’t winning you friends or respect.

And then? Think of it this way: These partners expend 85% of their energy settling scores, avoiding responsibility, lighting or putting out brush fires and managing emotional flare-ups. Yet they still manage to turn a profit. Imagine how well they could do if they focused on business.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.