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Partnerships and Personalities May Mean Problems

May 27, 2020

Natalie McVeigh, a director in EisnerAmper’s Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and Center for Family Business Excellence, joins the discussion opened in our case study, and lets us know how Jason and John moved forward. Partnership in business might be one of the most exciting opportunities for two people to take on! In many ways, a partnership is like a marriage and the business, or idea, you create together a bit like a child. Although the business probably talks back and requires less diaper changes than your own children, it may not consume less time or create less stress. When we are under stress, often, our learned coping behaviors are not as present and we go back to some of our ‘old ways’ and it changes our relationships… not always for the better.

Knowing your baseline, expectations, and stress reactions is a powerful tool to consider when getting into a partnership. Increasing your self-awareness through assessments is one of the ways we do this for our clients. We all believe we are very self-aware, yet studies show that only about 10-15% of us truly are; meaning: We can all use some help along the way.[1]

You might remember Jason Popper and John Powell, the childhood friends who started a car wash business. They have had what they would describe as a complementary relationship their whole lives, which has been ideal. Their good relationship and symbiosis is one the reasons they chose to get into business together and were able to easily create their partnership agreement. Yet nine months into the joint business venture, some tensions were rising. 

Jason was an extrovert growing the business, creating relationships and introducing sales. John focused on operations, finances, and what was happening in the office. As the fourth car wash opened, both men were strapped for time and the stress became palpable. Jason was not on-site as often as John thought he should be; Jason thought that John was mad at him because John stopped making it to Friday drinks. After one particularly awful Monday morning row, John and Jason called our Center for Family Business Excellence.

I arranged to have individual meetings with both men understanding that the tension seemed to be between them and they were not on speaking terms now. After the interviews, it was clear that both men were in alignment as they had agreed to be by their partnership document and were having process conflict: conflict around how they were doing what they were doing. They both agreed that growing the company was important, that they cared about each other, and that they had a task conflict, but something was getting in the way…. And each thought it was the other.

Jason believed that John was inflexible and uncaring, and that he did not appreciate the vision or efforts of Jason; “if it can’t be measured then it doesn’t count.” The icing on the cake was that they built the business as friends and it seemed by skipping Friday drinks that Jason believed John would rather have a successful business than a fruitful relationship.

John believed Jason was shirking his responsibilities and wasting a vast amount of time and money when both were strapped right now. “Jason never listens or ask any questions, it’s like he doesn’t hear me. We keep having the same conversation over again.” John was disappointed that his friend was not sharing the load and they were putting everything at risk, even their own families.

After the individual interviews, we came together to discuss the commonalities; which were that they still had the same goal for the business and for each other. They wanted a successful business and a wonderful friendship. What was getting in the way was how each of them behaved: their natural style of communication, how they worked, and what they needed. Most of the time when not under stress they would joke about their idiosyncrasies but under stress they were no longer funny; they became triggers. They were ‘hooking’, meaning that they were inadvertently pressing buttons each have held personally for a long time irrespective of this particular relationship,  each other in some fundamental ways. Natalie suggested that they run some assessments to understand their needs, communication and working styles. All agreed.

We did individual debriefs and other assessments, and both gentlemen learned a lot about themselves. In fact, they each ran home to show their wives their reports. Their wives were not at all surprised by the data -- but were glad that it was Jason and John by someone they would listen to, at least for the moment. Then all three of us came together for a composite report in which we overlaid the styles of each over the other to create a picture of the average day – which enabled us to account for the stress response. This lead to a robust discussion about some guidelines they were going to put into place around who was working in what way, and how improve to communication.

More importantly, though, it depersonalized the behaviors they were feeling from their partner. “He was just being himself.” “He shows up this way consistently.” Neither one of the gentlemen were lying awake at night trying to make the other miserable; they were just being themselves. Under the increased stress, neither were aware of the impact of their behavioral styles and the meaning the other was taking from these actions. A few things came out of the experience:

(1) Each gentleman had a new awareness of their own behaviors and the impact they had on their partner.

(2) After our discussions, each understood the other was ‘being himself’ and agreed to apply generous assumptions.

(3) Each agreed to watch and amend the ‘top triggers.’

[1] “95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% truly are.” Dr. Tasha Eurich (Article Only 15% Of People Are Self-Aware -- Here's How To Change on Forbes by Jeff Kauflin)

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Natalie M. McVeigh

Natalie McVeigh is a Managing Director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence Group within the Private Client Services Group and has more than 10 years of experience as a consultant and coach.

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