If a business partnership is a lot like a marriage, and there seems to be strong agreement that it is, staff members are the offspring and can be severely affected by partnership conflict. Like in a family, sometimes staff will just sense underlying tension among partners, but often it is more direct: there are blow-ups, contradictory instructions, or persistent comments about the perceived shortcomings of the other partner that alert employees that there is trouble between partners.
Once conflict is out in the open, staff members may align themselves with one or the other partner.
These coalitions can assemble in all sorts of ways, beyond the specific issues in the conflict. They may not even fully understand the issues and base their alliance on partial information. Sometimes it is due to loyalty to who brought them into the organization, to protect their position or general affinity with one of the partners.
The extent to which staff members react to partnership conflict can dramatically impact the overall health of the business. In a recent partnership conflict that we mediated the acrimony among partners had already caused the defection of a key staff member to a competing firm. This alerted the wider professional community to their internal conflict, affecting their reputation and ability to bring in new clients. This added to the financial issues which had contributed to their initial conflicts.
When workers begin to take sides and the conflict is no longer contained among the partners it becomes much more complicated to resolve.
Once “choosing sides” begins, differences are bound to get dangerously entrenched. Actually, this phenomenon was identified by sociologist Friedrich Glasl in his Nine-Stage Model of Conflict Escalation.
In this model, Stage 4 is a key turning point; it’s the stage where coalitions begin to build. This stage signals that “win-win” outcomes are less likely, replaced by “win-lose” outcomes.
The advice that business partners seek help early on to resolve conflict in their partnership can be easy to ignore. There are many priorities in a business and addressing conflict is often avoided until critical decisions cannot be made or external factors force a confrontation. But conflicts are very hard to contain and the fault lines created by coalitions cannot help but make the business less stable and employees more prone to distraction, in-fighting and defections, all of which will have long-lasting negative effects on the business.
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