The Gordian Knot: An “Impossible” Problem Solved in Two Partnership Coaching Sessions.

Sometimes conflicts between business partners can look hopeless, but because breaking up the business would be so costly, the partners may continue for months or even years in a sort of “cold war,” where everyone is unhappy but a solution seems out of reach. 

According to legend, King Gordius tied an extremely complex and intricate knot, and the oracle prophesized that the man who solved it would rule Asia.  After years of people trying to untie the knot in conventional ways, Alexander the Great simply cut the knot in two with his sword.  Problems between business partners are often such Gordian knots.  The partners have tried to address the problem; they have used all the usual skills and resources and nothing has worked. However, if they were to approach the problem with a new perspective or new tools, it could be solved quite simply and easily. The following is a case study outlining such a situation.*

Josh and Andreas are two of the ten partners at a small Washington, DC law firm.  Josh began at the firm twelve years ago, straight after law school, and has built a successful litigation practice.   Andreas previously worked at a big law firm specializing in biotech.  Josh and Andreas first met six years earlier playing basketball.  They played together regularly and knew each other well.  Andreas had expressed dislike for the atmosphere and office politics of his large firm, and when he mentioned that he was thinking about leaving, Josh suggested that Andreas join Josh’s firm.  Josh convinced the other partners that this would be good for the firm, and designed a deal that would allow Andreas to use the resources of the firm at a discounted rate while building his book of business.  Since joining the firm, Andreas had developed a solid reputation in his field and his client base was expanding rapidly. 

For the first couple months, the arrangement seemed to be working well, but soon the partners’ different communication styles came to the fore and caused a deep rift between them.  When they approached me, they had not been speaking to each other for nearly four months, except in partner meetings.  They didn’t really think that I could help, but the anger, frustration, confusion and distrust that they felt when seeing or thinking about each other was making them both miserable. Furthermore, the other partners and the office staff were all aware of the problem, and it was negatively impacting the whole office.  Since neither of them wanted to leave the firm, they called me in to help.  After only one-hour of conversation with each of them it was clear to me that the situation was salvageable.

They were friends who shared the same values and were excited to work together.  How did this devolve so quickly?   Andreas, coming from a large firm, where the culture was all about billing and virtually all office communications were handled via email, found the amount of casual conversation in his new office very frustrating. Leaving his previous firm with its high and reliable salary was a huge risk and Andreas felt like all his time and energy needed to be spent on either business development or billable hours.  From Andreas’s perspective, he had told Josh repeatedly that he didn’t have time to talk and that he preferred to receive office communications via email.  But even when Josh stopped visiting Andreas’s office, the problems continued. “My printer is located next to the secretary’s desk and when I go to pick something up from the printer, it seems like Josh is always there in the hallway waiting to pounce on me to discuss some trivial matter that I couldn’t care less about.” Spending time deciding whether to change the firm logo or get a new software system seemed to Andreas an utter waste of time.  Andreas could not imagine why Josh would continue to bother him when he made it so clear that he wanted to be left alone.  He concluded that Josh was playing some sort of power game, lording over Andreas the fact that Josh had brought him into the firm, and getting a twisted satisfaction from making Andreas miserable.  Having worked so hard to build his client base, the last thing Andreas wanted was to disrupt his momentum by moving to a new firm.  “I don’t care what Josh says, I’m not going anywhere,” he declared. 

Josh, as you may imagine, had a different perspective.  Josh was happy to be at a smaller firm because it had a more collegial atmosphere.  People made time to talk to each other, say good morning and have a quick chat. He had never worked at a big firm and had no interest in, as he put it, “an environment that focused on billing hours at the expense of basic civility.”  When Andreas had asked Josh not to stop by his office to visit, Josh was slightly offended and worried that there was some hidden issue, but nonetheless tried to accommodate Andreas’s request. Later when Andreas asked Josh not to speak to him in the hallway, even about legitimate firm business, this seemed ridiculous.  Again, Josh tried to respect Andreas’s wishes, but the idea of not being able to spend two minutes addressing an issue if you ran into a colleague in the hallway seemed so incomprehensible that Josh had trouble taking it seriously and sometimes spoke to Andreas anyway.  Josh had assumed that important issues like client management software would be an exception to the no talking rule, but based on Andreas’s reactions, clearly he was wrong.  One day Andreas looked at Josh with such pure hatred that Josh had been avoiding him ever since.  At this point, Josh became really furious.  He had gone out of his way to invite Andreas into his firm, and he had transformed it from a pleasant, comfortable, working environment and turned it into something toxic.  He thought he knew Andreas, but Josh started wondering if Andreas had come to the firm under false pretenses.  Now, anytime Josh saw Andreas talking with another partner, he would start to wonder.  Is Andreas plotting something? This situation was intolerable and Josh was adamant that Andreas was going to have to go.   

As this scenario demonstrates, small incidents often get misinterpreted and blown out of proportion, leading to a lot of misery.  It was clear to me after the initial consultation that both of them were sad about losing the other as a friend, and that although each attributed malicious motives to the other, neither actually intended any harm. I couldn’t provide details about my discussion with the other because the initial conversations were confidential; however, I assured them both that I believed that we could fix the situation.  I use a variety of methods for addressing partner conflict, depending on the type of problem, the relationship between the partners and the personalities involved.  In this case, I proposed a facilitated dialogue format which would allow them to address the issues in a clear and structured way.

In the course of two two-hour sessions, Josh and Andreas each had a chance to explain their perspectives and concerns.  They were able to see the situation from the other’s point of view and understand how the other’s actions and interpretations could make sense given his background and experience.  During the second session they wrote an agreement for how to handle communications in the future.  Rather than continue in a holding pattern of misery, or trying to push each other out of the firm through nasty, expensive litigation, they were able to address the issue and go back to being friendly and collegial.  Now, four years later, they continue to work together peacefully and their firm continues to thrive. 

* Names and other details have been altered to protect the identities of my clients.