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How to Have Healthy Disagreements at Work

What happens when you're working with your partner - and you can't agree? This is the nightmare that all business people dread, and it's the major reason so many fear collaboration in the first place. They read Paul Allen's accounts of Bill Gates, they watch the Winklevoss lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg, and they think: the one thing I do NOT want is a partner!

Don't be so hasty. Having a colleague may help you build and maintain the momentum you need to start a business in the first place. It can help you keep going when the road gets rocky. Many great things have come from partnerships (Hewlett and Packard, Buffett and Munger, Lennon and McCartney, Wordsworth and Coleridge) and if you can find one, it can be the making of you.

But there's bound to be some conflict. So what can you do to minimize the damage to the partnership?

1. Lay the Ground Rules Early
Discuss this at the outset; don't just hope it won't happen. When you establish your business relationship, have some good honest discussions about what you will do when you can't agree. This is bound to occur; even if one partner's utterly passive, at some point even that will drive you nuts. Explore some what-if scenarios and figure out - when you aren't under pressure - how you might deal with them when the going gets rough. Then, write this down - and agree to it.

2. Decide Who Decides

Establish some rules of engagement. One company I know decided that, if the two partners could not agree, then the partner who cared most would got the casting vote. Passion counts. The person most engaged will work hardest to make the decision work. For this to work, you both have to support the final decision. It's no good having dissenters. No matter who 'wins', everyone has to be onside once the call has been made.

3. Build in Time to Chill
Business people love being decisive and staying in motion. But when you have key strategic decisions to make, build in some time for reflection. We're all susceptible to being over-reactive and to defining our position against others. Build in some decision processes that allow everyone to decompress.

4. Locate Exit Doors
Never let your shared business venture become utterly dependent on one partner. When it isn't an issue, establish how either of you could leave. If you can't figure that out, don't go in. I always found that if you knew how to exit, you wouldn't need to.

5. Keeps Lawyers at Bay
If you are just starting a business, you need customers and cash. It's the easiest thing in the world to use up all your time and energy getting the paperwork perfect. But it won't matter if you don't get going. So write down your agreements. If you have a friendly lawyer, get them to look it over. But don't let the perfect agreement become your only product.

6. Respect Each Other As Equals

Even if the financial relationship isn't one of equals, make sure the working relationship is. If your partner brought little or no equity to the table, you still needed her. Everyone has put their time and reputation on the line; you can't measure these in fractions. So make that respect the hallmark of your working style. No relationship ever died from excessive respect.

7. Understand the UXB Theory
As my favorite lawyer used to say, every contract is an unexploded time bomb. So my rules won't guarantee nothing goes wrong. They'll help when they do. Your only guarantee ever is your mutual desire to see the venture flourish.

Further Reading

Goswick Sands photo courtesy of Geograph C.C.2.0