What makes good people bad partners? Over the past month I witnessed the dissolution of a 15 year law firm partnership. It started when one of the main partners filed for divorce. The timing was unfortunate. It came just weeks before two high-powered partners were scheduled to buy shares. A buy signals the value of the stock. Fearing repercussions, the senior partner (the one with the impending divorce) announced that he wanted to call off the deal. “We have to wait,” he told his colleagues. Secretly, he was hoping for more money.

Fast forward two months. Five partners parted ways, forming a new firm, taking several associates with them, including the two that were slated for purchase. The main partner became one of the four shareholders of the company. Three months later, the company filed for bankruptcy, citing excessive debt and an inability to attract new investors.

Could this have been avoided? Of course. With the right governance mechanisms in place, the company could have put systems in place to deal with conflicts like these. It takes trust to build those kinds of systems, and a willingness to make those decisions long before problems arise. The most important thing is that everyone must take responsibility. In this case, they hadn’t. And that made all the difference.

Ground rules are the foundation of productive discussions. Using ground rules, teams can establish norms about what is and is not acceptable communication and create healthy environments in which to discuss sensitive topics. We recommend that each team adopt ground rules similar to these to ensure productive discussions.

1. Keep discussions focused (make sure everyone knows the topic).
2. Focus on one speaker at a time (avoid side conversations).
3. Bring all issues to the table (avoid “back room” discussions).
4. Manage your “air time”.
5. Address problems, not people.
6. Participate fully: watch, act and be interested.
7. Balance inquiry and advocacy.
8. Use “I” statements; put yourself in all interactions.
9. Explain the reasoning that leads to your conclusions.
10. Identify assumptions, your own and those of others.
11. Make “undiscussable” ideas debatable (identify your “internal scripts”).1
12. Honor this job as one of your top priorities.
13. Check and observe your ground rules.

Conflict resolution through good governance policy implies basic rules for a productive conversation. Most of the time we talk to each other and never really discuss the core issues. People take a stand and bump heads. Use these (and any other) effective ground rules as a corporate policy to produce productive conversations when disagreements occur.

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