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Healing a Rift in Your Partnership
Business Journal

Healing a Rift in Your Partnership

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

When Michelangelo wanted to get back at his critic, Vatican Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, the artist painted him into the Sistine Chapel as Minos, judge of the underworld with a large snake curled around his legs as he watches the damned arrive in Hell.

After William L. Shirer was betrayed by his former close collaborator Edward R. Morrow, Shirer wrote a novel featuring a character who was particularly spineless and hypocritical. It was a thinly veiled caricature of Murrow.

We rarely admit how much we enjoy revenge. Something in our upbringing tells us it's not right to feel that way.

And it's widely believed that Jeffrey Katzenberg -- of whom Disney CEO Michael Eisner once said, "I think I hate the little midget" -- modeled "pushy, vain and real-estate hungry" Lord Farquaad, the villain of the movie Shrek, after his former boss.

When a partnership is going well, all kinds of wonderfully unselfish things happen. Partners change their goals to better match each other's objectives. They strive to be fair to each other. They focus on their counterparts' strengths. They overlook each other's foibles. At the zenith of collaboration, both partners make great personal sacrifices for the other's happiness.

But when things turn negative, a parallel set of emotions and reactions kicks in. The partners see themselves as pursuing opposing ends. Fairness becomes less about a considerate division of rewards and work and more about what one partner feels the other owes her. The counterpart's strengths don't seem so impressive any more. His personal ticks become full-fledged character flaws. At the nadir of collaboration, not only will the partners refuse to sacrifice for each other's benefit, they eagerly go out of their way to cause their one-time comrade pain.

"There will be a day of reckoning," Terry Garnett told himself when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison fired him. Garnett eventually became chairman of Ingres, a competitor of Oracle. "I do hold grudges," Garnett told BusinessWeek. "Am I motivated by that? Absolutely."

"I wish I'd never even met him"

The same emotional wiring that makes great partnerships so effective and rewarding creates corresponding and equally powerful negative forces if things go wrong. In a good collaboration, partners make statements such as "two heads are better than one." In a bad one, the two make comments such as "I would have been better off working by myself" or "I wish I'd never even met him."

Two statements in Gallup's research differentiate good and bad partnerships on keeping the collaboration from going negative:

  • There have been times when either my collaborator or I have violated the other's trust.
  • When either of us has violated the other's trust, we have been able to forgive each other.

Although minor disruptions occur in good and bad partnerships, serious violations of trust are rare in the best pairs. Only 18% of good partnerships suffer a real rift. Among poor partnerships, the number jumps to 40%. If such a breach occurs, those in a good partnership are better at working through it. When something serious enough to require forgiveness transpires, 85% of those in good partnerships do forgive. Those in poor partnerships patch things up only 14% of the time.

Trust between two collaborators is like the rope between mountaineers on a snowy ledge. If the line is cut, the gravity of powerful negative emotions kicks in. The cord may have been separated one fiber at a time, as when a snide remark, showing up late for an important meeting, or letting a shared project slide a little leads to a matching dereliction from the other guy. Or it may have been sliced in two with one stroke, when one partner clearly betrays the other. In either case, the former collaborators become subject to an "irrational" desire to return wrong for wrong.

Revenge is sweet. One brain-imaging study found that the enjoyment of striking back is processed in the same part of the brain that recognizes the pleasure of eating chocolate. The sweetest retaliation is more than a symbolic protest; it punishes the offender. Although the victim of the original offense gets nothing from the revenge except the satisfaction of seeing the other guy hurt, experiments have demonstrated that he is more than willing to pay to extract a cost from the other guy. Getting even can be as rewarding as reaching a major goal with someone else, making retribution a tempting alternative to collaboration.

Why would such a negative force be so powerful? Evolutionary psychologists think it stems from the need to maintain order in primitive societies. "For thousands of years, human societies did not have the modern institutions of law enforcement -- impartial police and impartial judges that ensure the punishment of norm violations such as cheating in an economic exchange," noted one set of scholars. "Social norms had to be enforced by other measures, and private sanctions were one of these means." One economist even went so far as to call our willingness to punish bad guys "the cement of society."

We rarely admit how much we enjoy revenge. Something in our upbringing tells us it's not right to feel that way, even though we do. But the evidence is all around. Think of how many action movies you've seen in which the emotional payoff at the end is seeing the bad guy get what's coming to him. "The powerful appeal of the revenge theme in mass entertainment," wrote one commentator, "is simply one more manifestation of the gap between private feelings about revenge and the public pretense that justice and vengeance have nothing, perish the uncivilized thought, to do with each other."

In the movies, villains get impaled (Lethal Weapon 4), are forced out the back of an airborne plane (Air Force One), or get shot reaching for their guns (Dirty Harry). In real life, they suffer less violent but equally deserving fates.

Common sense (confirmed in the research) indicates what needs to be done by the offender: Apologize. Make your good intentions clear.

"Every time we were to meet with the CEO to present our recommendations, my boss would have me do the report and then he would put a new cover sheet on the report with his name as the author," one volunteer told a group of researchers studying revenge. "Then, at the meeting, he would refer all of the CEO's questions to me while taking all of the credit for the report. So, one day, I had finally had it. I did the report as requested. But on the day of the presentation to the CEO, I took a 'holiday' from work. At that meeting, the CEO asked my boss the questions and he could not answer any of them. The CEO investigated and my boss was fired. I was promoted to my boss' position."

The retaliation reflex

The human mind admires a good payback. "Poetic justice" occurs when it serves a larger purpose than just repaying harm inflicted on the victim, when it's ingenious, and when it makes the offender the instrument of his own demise. "Revenge may be more aesthetically pleasing when it is not simply a repetition of the provocation," wrote the scientists who reported the bad boss story. "To truly 'one-up' the harmdoer and impress others, the avenger may have to demonstrate some originality and creativity."

The vicarious satisfaction, the smirk we get from hearing how the plagiarizing manager was exposed or how a former Disney CEO was mocked in, of all things, a children's movie only serves to demonstrate the real temptation of what scientists call "negative reciprocity" -- and its danger. The retaliation reflex may be "the cement of society," but it fractures partnerships. Vengeful feelings quickly get out of hand. Animosity can simmer for years. "A central problem in escalating feuds is that both parties use different arithmetics to calculate the balance," wrote the poetic justice researchers.

One of the most difficult collaborative decisions you will face is whether to patch up a partnership if your counterpart violates your trust. There is no perfect answer. Anyone who tells you to just let it go is failing to consider the intensity of his own emotions under these circumstances. Problems serious enough to require wrestling with the decision are sparked by offenses that would justify writing off your partner.

Yet failing to continue working together can forfeit the benefits of what was otherwise a solid combination. "Some of these relationships are too good to destroy just because somebody harms us," said Michael E. McCullough, an expert on the psychology of revenge and forgiveness. "We have to have a way of getting over the fact that we're going to get into squabbles [and] we're going to have conflicts of interest. Not only in the human species, but in non-human primates, you see evidence that when they harm each other they really are predisposed to try to patch those relationships back together."

Common sense (confirmed in the research) indicates what needs to be done by the offender: Apologize. Make your good intentions clear. Make a peace offering. Be demonstrably more reliable to rebuild trust.

The more intriguing question is what to do if you were the one betrayed. You need a tremendous amount of discernment, self-control, ability to give your counterpart the benefit of the doubt, and desire for a better outcome to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one. How you manage your own thinking is as important as the offense itself. In many cases, whether a person forgives the misdeed says less about the seriousness of the wrong than about the personality of the partner whose trust was abused.

According to conventional wisdom that dates back as far as Aristotle, feelings of anger need to be vented or released to avoid having them build up to a much larger explosion. Sigmund Freud argued that if people didn't react forcefully to an emotional offense, they would continue to carry unresolved feelings. "Language attests to this fact of daily observation in such expressions as 'to give vent to one's feeling,' to be 'relieved by weeping,' etc.," he wrote. "If the reaction is suppressed, the affect remains united with the memory. An insult retaliated, be it only in words, is differently recalled than one that had to be taken in silence . . . the reaction of an injured person to a trauma has really only then a perfect 'cathartic' effect if it is expressed in an adequate reaction like revenge."

Freud's advice has been repeated over the subsequent decades. "Punch a pillow or a punching bag. Punch with all the frenzy you can," states a 1993 book on anger management. "If you are angry at a particular person, imagine his or her face on the pillow or punching bag, and vent your rage physically and verbally. You will be doing violence to a pillow or punching bag so that you can stop doing violence to yourself by holding in poisonous anger."

I guess having whiffed the dregs of retribution, I realized something George Orwell once wrote: 'Revenge is sour.'


There's just one problem with this strategy: It doesn't work. By Freud's theory, if someone who was insulted by a colleague were to divert his anger into pounding nails for 10 minutes, he should have gotten much of the frustration out of his system. In 1959, a University of Iowa researcher tested this idea, allowing half his subjects the chance to hammer out their anger over such an insult. Then he observed as each of the volunteers got the chance to criticize the original offender. Those who spent time hammering nails were more, not less, hostile toward the person who insulted them.

Hitting the punching bag

In 2002, a professor at Iowa State University had hundreds of students write a brief political essay. He told them another student would comment on what they wrote, when in fact he had already prepared scathing reviews. He slammed the essays on their organization, originality, writing style, clarity, persuasiveness, and overall quality. On a scale ranging from -10 (very bad) to +10 (very good), every essay got a score between -8 and -10. He also attached a handwritten comment to each essay that read: "This is one of the worst essays I have read!" ("Previous research has shown that this procedure makes people quite angry," the professor added.)

Some of the students were given boxing gloves and a 70-pound punching bag. They were instructed to hit it as much as they wanted while thinking of the person who criticized their essays. A picture of the purported offender's face was shown on a computer monitor. Others were made to just sit, waiting while the experimenter pretended to be fixing their partner's computer. Hitting the punching bag not only failed to alleviate anger and aggression, it increased the negative feelings.

"The results from the present research show that venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire -- it only feeds the flame," wrote the professor. "By fueling aggressive thoughts and feelings, venting also increases aggressive responding. People who walloped the punching bag while thinking about the person who had provoked them were the most angry and the most aggressive."

Taken together, a number of recent studies indicate that the more one entertains the anger or recalls the bad event, the less likely it is to be resolved, and therefore the less likely the partnership will survive the rift. What the academic journals call "rumination," what you probably call "stewing" or "fuming," only makes things worse.

So what should you do to get over a rough patch in your partnership? The most constructive strategies require you to find a middle ground between being aloof and submersing yourself in the emotions triggered by the event -- close enough to work through the situation, far enough to avoid reliving it. Those who find this middle ground are able to evaluate the reasons why they got upset without stirring up the original emotions.

One of the best ways to resolve a past problem is to find the positive in it. With his success in his new partnerships, Katzenberg is philosophical about his time with Eisner. "I had 10 great years at Disney," he told a reporter in 2007. "I worked for Michael for 19 years and did very, very well with him. I don't even have any bad feelings. I don't feel any resentment. Nothing."

A study of 304 students who were asked to recall "a harmful thing that someone you know did to you" found that the students who were instructed to think about the upside did much better working through it. "We would like for you to write about positive aspects of the experience," the researchers told the volunteers. "In which ways did the thing that this person did to you lead to positive consequences for you? Perhaps you became aware of personal strengths that you did not realize you had, perhaps a relationship became better or stronger as a result, or perhaps you grew or became a stronger or wiser person."

The students who were given this assignment found the task "remarkably easy to complete," wrote the professors. They listed benefits such as discovering a previously unknown strength, becoming wiser and better at communicating, increased confidence, learning forgiveness, and even strengthening their relationship with the person who first aggravated them. The students who looked for benefits were more forgiving -- less vengeful and less likely to avoid the offender -- than other volunteers who were instructed to dwell on the offense itself in their writing.

Nonetheless, it takes a rare level of maturity and self-awareness to let the trespass pass. "In a former workplace I had a chance to undermine a coworker who'd previously earned my dislike," one reader wrote to BusinessWeek after the publication of a cover article on revenge. "Due to a computer malfunction, a 100-page document she was composing vanished. The loss guaranteed she'd never make her deadline. I watched her stress mount for a moment or two, but I couldn't resist pointing out something she didn't know. She'd accidentally cc'd me a recent draft of her document. Relief washed over her as she realized she'd make her deadline after all."

"Why did I do that?" the writer asked himself. "I guess having whiffed the dregs of retribution, I realized something George Orwell once wrote: 'Revenge is sour.'"

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

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