How to Navigate Challenging Business Relationships

Companies should be built around rational, financially focused decisions; the personal relationships that also arise in the business world can sometimes be at odds with that. But it’s possible to appease both ends of the spectrum.

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One of your employees is acting weird. Typically personable and engaged, this guy suddenly seems distant and distracted. 

As the odd behavior adds up, you imagine the worst. You tell yourself stories about what might be happening. He has three kids, so he probably wants to make more money. He seemed annoyed after last week's meeting, so he’s carrying a grudge.

We think we know the people we work with, so we assume we understand them. 

The Challenging Nature of Business Relationships

There is a reason people use the phrase “work family.” We spend a ton of time with our co-workers. In this industry, our actual blood relatives may be in the mix too. 

Here’s where it really gets awkward. Capitalism doesn’t have a heart. Our economy depends on businesses making rational, financially focused decisions. That’s why pairing business and personal relationships can be a bad idea. The very instinct that kept our caveman ancestors from being eaten by a lion is a problem in this industry. It’s complicating your ability to fire the friendly vendor who messes up every order, and it keeps your alcoholic cousin employed past the point of reason. We can love our family unconditionally, but that doesn’t work for our business associates. Even the ones related to us. 

It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

Regardless of how we feel about them as people, the business relationship must make sense. It’s an agreement where everyone expects to receive value:  

  • Customers want their problems solved.
  • Employees want compensation.
  • Managers want performance.
  • Owners want a profit. 

Conflict happens when the transaction gets out of balance. It may start with something minor, but the give-and-take gets out of whack. Tension builds on both sides as frustration increases.

Eventually, both the business and personal relationship become damaged, and it dissatisfies everyone. The cycle only stops when someone confronts the problem.

Realizing there is a problem is step one. Pay attention to interpersonal dynamics, and speak up when things don’t feel right. Most times, the issue isn’t you at all. Distraction might come from troubles at home, not feeling well or a bad night’s sleep. Start with a simple, open-ended question: “Are you OK?”

Show you care about the human, start a discussion and offer a little empathy.   

Check your assumptions at the gate and ask open-ended questions to get the conversation started. Don’t let your imagination make up a story about what is happening. Work with facts. 

Finally, address the behavior that is causing a business concern. Set boundaries that outline your expectations and what they receive in return. In particularly difficult situations, have a trusted third party in the room to act as mediator. 

What Happens When We Assume

Turns out, the employee missed work because his dad was hospitalized and they are bringing in hospice. He’s apologetic but agrees he is distracted. Whoops, you read that the wrong way. 

At this point, you have cleared the air, but you still haven’t addressed the business issue. Don’t skip this step. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m so sorry you are going through that. It’s understandable that your focus is on your family. I’m concerned about you working distracted though. Should you take a few days?”

If the employee declines your suggested corrective action for their behavior, you can push further: “I understand that you want to work, but I can’t have you being preoccupied. It’s a safety issue. I need to see that your head is in the game. If you can’t do that, I will insist on vacation time.”

This shows you care about them, but also affirms the business relationship boundaries. Had you led with your assumptions, you could have botched that conversation terribly. An accusation would have made the already heart-hurt employee anxious and defensive. 

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The things you assume about other people’s behavior says more about you than it does about them. Don’t project your issues onto other people. Some people push our buttons more than most. You may not handle every conversation perfectly. That’s fine, but take responsibility for your own actions.

If things aren’t working out, consider which relationship is most important to you. Are you more concerned about salvaging the personal relationship or the business decision? These aren’t always easy or fun decisions, but ignoring them won’t make them go away.

When It’s Business and Personal

Robot-hearted economists would tell us that unconditional love — like we have for close family, spouses and children — has no place in a business setting. It doesn’t allow us to make the kinds of decisions that capitalism demands.

So what do we do with that in the reality of a family-operated business?

There is no perfect, easy answer to mixing business and pleasure. It can work, but it’s hard sometimes. For almost seven years, my parents, spouse and I have walked this tightrope. We’ve learned a few things along the way:

  1. Create clear job responsibilities that prevent overlap when possible. To work, this requires trust and mutual respect.
  2. Have a safe space to come together and discuss the business regularly. Try a private weekly meeting with an agenda.
  3. Build boundaries around work vs. personal life. It’s all about time and place. 

More than anything, the key to making familial work relationships successful is communication and trust.

Feeling the Love

When things are tense and we aren’t feeling the love, it’s important to take positive steps toward a resolution. Don’t let drama fester or allow the proverbial elephant to sit in the corner. 

About the Author

Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at


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