There’s a good chance that you were told prior to entering into your business
partnership that it was like a marriage. There is also a good chance that when people
told you that, you did not believe them. Now that you have been in a partnership for a
while, not only do you believe them, but also you are probably beginning to understand
that it is more like a marriage than marriage itself. All of those complexities are for another article.
Here, we are going to get a handle on partnerships and the problem employee.
My work with owner-operated business borrows heavily from the work that is done with
families. There are obvious reasons for this. Owner-operated businesses often
impact and are enmeshed with the family and vice versa. When there are partners that
simply means that the business is enmeshed with more families. Beyond that,
however, there are more subtle differences. The owners are not employees. I’m not
talking technicalities here of whether the company is incorporated and the owners are,
for tax purposes, employees. I’m talking ownership and the impact that has on the
dynamic with employees.
Employees of an owner-operated company are much more subject to any trait, thought,
emotion, mood, desire, or belief of the owners than they would be to a manager in a
publicly owned company. This can be a good thing. The enthusiasm of the owners
can be invigorating. The sense of purpose can be inspiring. However, as long as the
owner has broken no law, there is no higher authority to go to if one disagrees or is in
conflict with the owner. This means that employees in an owner-operated business
are very focused on the owner.
The power context of an owner-operated business is very much like that of a family,
where authority comes, or should come, from the parents. It is very important that the
employees see consistency and stability coming from the owners. Partners, like
spouses, will disagree. Open conflict, however, breeds insecurity low morale. This in
turn can often trigger what can be most easily understood as childish behavior on the
part of certain employees. Just like a child in a home where there is parental discord,
one will play one off of the other. This happens in offices all the time. It happens with
greater impact in owner-operated businesses, because the owner cannot be replaced.
Another thing that often happens in an owner-operated business is that the owner will
hire a manager and then come in and take over, in front of the other employees. As an
owner, if you ever wish to be able to take a vacation with the peace of mind that things
are being taken care of, this is NOT the way to do it. However, it only compounds the
problem if the other partner comes out and tries to undo what the other partner is
doing. Chaos will reign.
Problems that result from conflict of authority are many. It will bring out the worst in
your worst employees. It will stifle the good of your best employees and drive them
What needs to happen is that the partners need to have regular communication and
come to agreement as to how things are to get done. Once this is done, the same
things need to happen between the partners and managers. Doing this in a way that
supports and empowers your employees while making personal responsibilities
clear, accomplishes many things. It goes a long way to making an emotionally safe
place for employees to thrive and a place where unproductive personality manipulation
will find it very difficult to take root.
How do you know if you have an employee problem or a problem in the way you are
managing? One way to tell is that if you seem to get employee problems that feel the
same, over and over again, from different employees, chances are it is dynamic. This
means that before placing blame it is important to get to the root cause and do
something different. As owners, the dynamic starts here, and that is where the
solution needs to begin or the problem is just going to keep showing up.