The Corporate Shrink

Coping with partners who can't stand each other; when a white lie is appropriate.

I'm a junior partner at a law firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Two of the senior partners, who both bring in a lot of business, can't stand each other. They have shouting matches, but even worse, they've divided the firm into two camps that mistrust each other. What should I do?

This sort of internecine nastiness is all too common in law firms, investment partnerships, and other businesses that depend on their owners' harmony. If only people could get along, the world would be a better place, right? But the darker aspects of human nature—competitiveness, envy, and shame—appear in the most inopportune places. It's ironic that your firm helps bring companies together, but its partners operate as though they're in hostile takeover mode.

Splits like this are rarely resolved on their own. Even if the two partners are capable of acknowledging the carnage they're wreaking, they probably aren't motivated to change their behavior. Typically, it takes a crisis, or a mandate from someone higher on the totem pole, to get the warriors to try to work things out.

I'm often asked to consult in these situations. (Think "couples counseling" for business partners.) I predict aloud that each of them will try to convince me that his view is the correct one, and they usually prove me right. But it's rarely as simple as villain and victim. More likely, each partner unknowingly sees some unappealing aspect of himself in his rival, then treats the other as though his behavior were crazy or misguided. They do this because they fear the intimacy that might otherwise come with working closely together, or because they're insecure about sharing their success.

Unfortunately, conflicts at this level often trickle down through the organization. Lacking help from above, those working below are left to suffer—and either to address the dysfunction or adapt to it. Of the two, adapting is the more practical approach because a junior partner trying to broker such battles tends to be about as successful as a child trying to mend the rift between battling parents. The child usually loses.

In the meantime, be careful. You're probably tempted to align with one senior partner, if you haven't already. Better to form alliances on both sides of the divide. It's a safer strategy for you—and a more productive one for your firm.

A colleague recently quit because she was seriously depressed. Our boss sent out an email announcing her departure, saying she was leaving for "health reasons." But it was obvious to everyone that it was an emotional, not physical, problem. Is there a better way to handle this?

Your boss was right to call it a health problem. While the nature of her illness may have been clear to everyone, it's really nobody's business. The email wasn't exactly dishonest, either, as depression may have biological roots and profoundly affects one's physical well-being.

So, what do you do? Acknowledge that your colleague is gone (saying nothing would be worse), while respecting her right to privacy. If she was a good friend at work, she might appreciate a call inquiring how she's doing. Don't let whatever discomfort you might feel about her diagnosis deter you from staying in touch.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on management, leadership, and governance. Email your questions about the psychology of business (shrink@fastcompany.com).

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