Having a business partner can be a huge advantage. It offers you extra funding and expertise to help get your business off the ground. As far as success rates go, studies show that businesses that start with more than one founder have a 30 percent higher chance of success in the long run, and they grow three times as fast.
However, a business partnership doesn’t always run smoothly. When you have two people who are passionate about doing the same job, you’re bound to have a few disagreements. You might also have delayed decisions, confusing legal responsibilities, overhanging contention, and a number of other obstacles with your partnership, not the least of which is a potentially ruined friendship.
If you and your partner can’t seem to get along, you need some conflict resolution strategies to carry your business forward. Here’s some advice from the pros.
- Have a frank discussion to get everything out in the open
One of the most common and successful dispute resolution tactics is a clear discussion held early on in the dispute.
“Avoidance will not resolve the conflict; at best, it will only delay conflict,” says Sondra R. Levine, a licensed attorney and member of the bar in several states. “An unresolved conflict festers underneath the surface and will bubble right back to the surface whenever enabled, and will also reappear always at the worst possible moment. For these reasons it’s best to address problems quickly and directly.”
Have an “active listening session” in which each person is allowed to have their say before working towards a solution. One person will talk for three to five minutes and the other will listen silently. Then, the roles will reverse. It seems a little juvenile at first, but it’s a great way to make sure everyone is validated and each problem is addressed.
Levine continues: “After listening without interruption (regardless of whether I agree with their perception of events), I usually paraphrase or summarize what I’ve heard to make sure that (1) I have an accurate understanding of where they are coming from and (2) they know that I’ve heard them. This then allows me to share my perspective of the problem without interruption and sets an informal set of rules for the structure of the conversation (civility, respect, etc…). This open discussion also reduces misinformation and misunderstandings.”
- Develop stronger lines of communication to prevent unnecessary conflict
“If a partnership is going to succeed, there must be effective communication at all levels within the partnership and inside each partner organization,” recommends a white paper from Strengthening Nonprofits. “In addition, strong feedback loops should be outlined from the beginning of the relationship so that all stakeholders receive timely information.”
Creating this kind of communication structure means making an open-door policy clear from the very beginning. If one partner has a problem with the way business is run or they have feedback, they should be allowed to present that communication in a judgment-free zone.
Another part of this structure is teaching members how to facilitate conflict resolution. “Facilitators must be able to uphold the decided-on norms and dialogue framework,” the white paper continues. “All participants must agree to the norms and be willing to hold each other accountable. Through facilitated communication, partnership members must learn how to engage in productive conflict, which is necessary in order for the group to implement community-wide solutions.”
- Consider getting outside help
Unfortunately, not all business conflicts can be easily resolved. When your conflict resolution tactics are unsuccessful, you might try hiring a mediator to ease the kinks. The mediator will be a neutral third person, usually a lawyer or someone with vast business knowledge, who meets individually and in groups with the partners to fully understand the problem and mediate a solution.
“Mediation is often a preferred dispute resolution technique for business partners who are at odds with one another because it is usually quicker, easier and far less expensive than taking the dispute to court,” explains a Raleigh law firm in a blog post. “These negotiations occasionally get heated, but the mediator is trained to reduce tension between business partners. Ideally, after several rounds of negotiations, the parties can agree to a resolution that works for both of them.”
- Know when it’s time to go your separate ways
Occasionally, the conflict cannot be resolved, even with the help of the mediator. A partnership that can’t agree can’t succeed, and you’ll be dragged down in the middle of it. In some cases, it’s better to separate your business, and start out on your own.
There will be legal matters to handle here, including reviewing your partnership agreement and deciding on the proper legal split. This is usually governed by state law and takes about 90 days from the filing date. Consult a lawyer to make sure all of the proper legal steps are taken.
The goal is to end the partnership amicably, despite negativities in the past. “Think before you act,” is the advice from Nicolas Gremion of Foboko.com. “You never want to end a partnership in the heat of the moment. Rather, think things through carefully and plan your approach/case. Saying too little or too much can have negative consequences in the future.”
Partnership conflicts are never easy to handle, and things might not end the way you had hoped. It’s important to take all the proper steps in the process so that you can look back on whatever decision you make without regrets.