Breaking Up (in Business) is Hard To Do

Breaking up is never easy. And it can be especially difficult in a business relationship, when you’re navigating the pros and cons of how the relationship will impact your career or reputation down the road. Knowing that you don’t have to spend every waking moment with a difficult colleague or co-worker, can make the relationship seem salvageable (“At least I can go home to something ‘normal’ at night…”) and when you throw in the financial rewards of the relationship, it can seem even harder, or maybe downright impossible, to go. But there are some business relationships that are harder than others to live with, and I have met far too many individuals who have struggled, in limbo, to decide whether they should salvage or end a business relationship, so I thought I’d share my perspective, to maybe help a person or two in the process.

I have personally experienced this quandary on more than one occasion and there are certainly times when it makes sense to push through and to learn and grow in the process. Some of our biggest growth opportunities come in the face of adversity. And then there are other business relationships that, in my experience, are best left alone. I have always felt strongest in the moments when I listened to my intuition and trusted myself when making hard decisions. During the process it’s easy to doubt yourself, but there is always (if you’re truly honest with yourself) a ‘knowing’ deep down whether something is a right fit for you or not.

But how do you know which is which?

No matter where you go in life, you’ll find situations that challenge you to stretch and grow (this is a good thing), and most of the time you can work through these challenges with mature communication and open-minded solution-finding. However, in my experience both personally, and through the clients I have coached, is that I’ve noticed that there are moments when you are best off exiting gracefully (read: drama-free. You have a reputation to uphold, after all). When you find yourself in that ‘in-between’ time, when you are wondering if you can push through and make something amazing with a potential business partner, supplier, contractor, freelancer, employer, or joint venture partner—or not—then consider these warning signs of a dysfunctional business relationship:

Shifting Blame

If you work in partnership with someone who refuses to take responsibility when things go wrong, then the likelihood of creating a healthy working relationship is slim. In order for two people to work through challenges and rise up through difficult situations to get to the other side, both parties need to be willing to self-reflect and be honest when their personal decisions and/or actions have impacted a result.

When things go wrong, shifting blame often happens subconsciously (this is normal), and in a healthy individual, those thoughts and feelings will be short-lived. However, for some, taking responsibility is actually ‘too painful’ and they resort to lashing out with blame, victim-hood, and vengeance.

Sometimes it comes out as down-right denial.

“I didn’t say that,” he says. Or, “If you had done it my way, this never would have happened,” she blames.

In a healthy business partnership, you’ll be able to sit down, assess the results of a campaign or project, and adjust your actions to yield a better result next time. You’ll be met with solution-finding and understanding; with curiosity and a commitment to make things better. In a healthy relationship, if you really did mess something up, you’ll talk it out and identify ways to improve next time.

But in an unhealthy partnership, the other person will refuse to take responsibility, and sometimes will take it as far as denying any involvement in the situation whatsoever.

Where you get your power back is when you realize that you get to decide if you want to be someone else’s scapegoat.

Creating an Illusion of Superiority

It’s normal to want to focus on your strengths and to share your experiences and successes with other people. In my opinion, this is healthy and builds strong relationships – especially when you are able to celebrate together and build each other up. Woot! Where it gets tricky, is when someone pretends to have all the answers, is unable to listen to another person’s ideas, belittles others and their personal choices, and builds themselves up through a grandiose illusion. They’ll talk about their friends in high places, they’ll impose their viewpoints without considering yours, they will insult or shame other people in your presence making you feel like you are part of an ‘inner circle’, but it’s an illusion. It’s not real.

This is a bullying tactic and it can bring you down.

The interesting thing about this tactic is that it’s harder to identify, but a good clue to look for is if and when you start to feel ‘less than’ the other person and you start to question your ideas and your worth. This is exactly what they’re trying to do.

I’m hear to say that you are not ‘less than’ anyone.

You’re not.

And if someone treats you with disregard or disrespect in a business partnership then you might want to reconsider your involvement.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, is that those who project an illusion of superiority towards others, do so because they are in deep emotional pain and somewhere, at a subconscious level, they have tremendously low self-esteem. This doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but it can help to know that they create these illusions in their minds in order to feel worthy, valued or loved.

At the end of the day, just remember that someone else’s issues are not your problem and you don’t have to stand in the cross-fire.

Angry Attacks to You or to Others

If you end up in a working relationship where your counterpart has uncontrollable angry outbursts, on a regular basis, consider this your red flag.

Sure, everyone is entitled to the odd mood swing every now and then. It happens for most people and comes out in different ways. And it can be forgivable – especially if they take responsibility and apologize for their actions. Nobody is perfect and I’m not saying they should be.

But if you find yourself in a situation where you’re dealing with someone who carries a cloud of negative energy around him or her when in a bad mood, and lashes out when upset with insults, attacks or temper tantrums, that’s not healthy. It’s just not.

If someone you know calls another team member names, ridicules them in front of other people, or secretly threatens people’s security and safety, you are not immune. They are saying the same types of things about you behind your back, too. And no matter how you slice it, that behaviour is never okay.

In one work situation where I was a C-suite executive, it got to a point in my work environment where I felt anxious when I would see a certain team member’s number show up on my call display. My heart would sink when I saw his car in the parking lot. I didn’t know if I would be met with kindness and collaboration, or if I would be met with anger, swearing, and “frustration”. After many attempts to speak to this issue, and to work it out, I realized I was being bullied, silenced, and emotionally abused in the situation and, after another 6 months of trying to resolve the issues, I chose to leave. It was one of the hardest career decisions I ever made because I loved my role and I loved my team.

But I loved myself even more.

Anger is an emotion and there are healthy ways to deal with it. Lashing out at another person and creating an unsafe environment isn’t how you do it.

Your Core Values Don’t Align

If you notice someone behaving unethically, choosing to lie or cheat to get ahead, adjusting policies and procedures without a client’s consent, unilaterally adjusting contracts in their favour, or hurting another person in any way, shape or form, then there really is no room for apology or justification. If those behaviours don’t align with your personal core values, I would take a guess that you’ll feel like a fraud if you continue to associate with that person or company. It’s not worth it.

I’ve learned this lesson a few different times throughout my career and each time unfolded the same way. When I recognized my core values didn’t align with the core values of the partner or company I was working for, I first chose to address it, and when nothing changed, I had to choose between honouring my values, or keeping my job. I chose me.

Here’s just one example: I was assigned as project lead for a marketing project and when the copy was delivered to me, I knew some of the facts and figures in the copy were untrue. This made me uncomfortable, so I brought this up with my manager and asked for clarification, being careful about how I approached the subject and being open-minded that maybe I didn’t have all the facts. The response was simply, “This is marketing”, and I knew in that moment our core values didn’t align.

Ugh. If that’s marketing then I want nothing to do with it.

The truth is, that is NOT marketing. That’s lying. Marketing is creating an experience for your clients that they won’t forget, attracting clients because of who you truly are and what you genuinely offer them, the way in which you help them, engaging them with content and ideas and face-to-face experiences, and giving them a valid reason to want to tell their friends about you. That’s what marketing is. It’s genuine. It’s real. And it can be a lot of fun.

There is nothing more off-putting than a desperate marketer who has to make up facts and figures for their own personal gain. That’s not ‘fake-it-til-you-make it’. That’s crap.

And yes, that is my opinion.

Your core values could be very different than the ones I’ve outlined here, so you’ll have to assess what is true for you. But in my experience, the moment you notice that your core values don’t align in a business partnership is the moment you’ve reached your expiry date.

Be true to yourself, be honest with what is important to you, and align yourself with those who support you in being your true self.

Trust Yourself

There are many ways to save a struggling relationship, but sometimes there’s nothing left to save. Just like in a romantic relationship, when it’s time to say goodbye, you just know. Sometimes things are left too long and they only get worse. So if you find yourself in that in between stage where you’re still in the relationship and you’re assessing your next step, consider these warning signs and choose what is right for you. Only you know what that is. Listen to your intuition. Be true to you. Trust yourself.

And in my experience, when you do that, there is light on the other side.


Annette Sharpe
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