by Michael Gunther

Work relationships are always so intriguing to me. Most people spend more hours with co-workers than with friends and family—laughing, learning, challenging each other, etc. Bonds are often formed when people are working together with a common purpose or goal. Relationships are built, sometimes life-long. Yet, these relationships can crumble more quickly than I believe personal relationships can. Trust and strong foundations can shift rapidly, often based on poor communication, emotional responses, and protecting one’s turf.

I recently experienced this process through a friend in southern California. One of the key partners of her business passed away and they didn’t have a strong buy/sell agreement in place. She had been with the company for 10 years, running the organization as CEO and President, and suddenly found herself in business with the widow and son of the deceased partner. She’d worked tirelessly to bring the company back to profitability. She had the independence to make day-to-day decisions and through this process had been providing a good return for the ‘inherited partners’ by doubling the profits each of the last two years.

But it only took a few short months to destroy the trust that had been built for more than a decade, at which point my friend resigned as the President & minority partner, and the company is now struggling to maintain its footing. How could a strong business relationship, originally built on a friendship, be destroyed so quickly? The lack of trust, separate agendas, and hurt feelings all played a role.

The ‘inherited partners’ knowledge of business and the interworkings of the company was minimal. But instead of working with the existing partner to understand the business, they became secretive and suspicious to the point of hiring a ‘board of advisors’ to coach them through this process. In addition, they wanted to sell the business, which was also the desire of my friend, but they never talked to her about this idea and instead acted behind the scenes to get this process started.

Rather than collaborating, they were getting further and further away from working together. From secret meetings offsite to hiring new accountants, the lines were being drawn. Emotions were running high and every comment or communication seemed to have hidden meaning. The situation got to a point where my friend resigned and is now involved in a legal battle. The relationship has been destroyed and the business is suffering from the fall out.

I have had a similar experience (not quite to this extreme) when a team member resigned from our firm. We had years of working side by side together, a strong foundation between the two of us and then, during the transition with emotions running high, words and actions were misinterpreted. We both went into self-protect mode and the relationship has deteriorated. Years of collaborating and professional interactions gone within a few weeks, even though both us were all about maintaining strong relationships.

It made me consider that in my personal life, relationships can withstand change and these issues more readily, evolving and sometimes even becoming stronger. At work, obviously the situation is different because you have a different basis for your relationship, even if it may look the same at times. I have had many relationships in my 30 years of working that have ended on a truly positive note. I am still friends today with those people. Is it money or the ego that causes it to get messy? Is it because these relationships are based on different values and parameters than personal relationship, even though the line often gets blurred?

Bottom Line

I’m also learning as a leader, and realizing that sometimes keeping emotions restrained and logic in the forefront when it comes to employee interactions is for the best, even when relationships are the basis of my personal and professional life.

This is another article in a series on Michael’s entrepreneurial story and how being raised in a large family has influenced his career. To read the previous articles in this series, visit his blog at www.Collaboration-llc.com.

Michael Gunther is Founder and President of Collaboration LLC, a team of highly skilled business professionals who are dedicated to assisting proactive business owners to build profitable, sustainable businesses through results-oriented education and consulting services. Learn more at www.Collaboration-llc.com.

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