First-class coach: Dominated at work

What to do when your business partner wears the trousers...

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

I am joint MD of a small firm and although I get on well with the other MD, we have very different styles. He's very directive, but he can be a bit of a bully as well. He sees me as sometimes being too soft, and while it's true I don't like confrontations, I do understand our people and believe it wouldn't be good for the business to let him dominate.

A: Managing any job-share is tricky: there can be rivalry between the two parties, disagreement on key issues, divided staff loyalty and duplication of effort, as well as the danger of important tasks falling into the cracks between the two. In my experience, most joint appointments don't last long; often, one or other of the joint role-holders moves on - upwards, sideways or out.

So why do companies promote two people to the same role? Sometimes, it's because both are strong candidates for the job and there is a worry that the appointment of one will cause the departure of the other. At others, it's because neither candidate seems quite good enough on their own, or because the workload is too large for one person. More rarely, joint appointments are made for the wholly positive reason that the skills and style of the pair are so complementary that they will be able to achieve much more together than they could singly.

Whatever the reason for your shared appointment, you have to find a way of making it work. One approach is to split the tasks, so that you each have responsibility for the areas to which you are best suited. With any luck, your oppo will have been told before that he has a tendency to rub people up the wrong way and will cede to you the tasks that require a more diplomatic and humane approach, where your softer style is more appropriate; and he'll find tasks and responsibilities more aligned to his direct approach. This may leave areas that neither of you particularly relishes but nevertheless need to be addressed; these can be divided up fairly.

It's worth recognising that each has something to learn from the other. He could benefit from broadening his repertoire from the directive, confrontational styles he favours to embrace more persuasive and empathetic styles of leadership. This will help him get what he wants from people of all sorts, personally and professionally.

If he's reluctant to take advice from you, perhaps he could take as a role model a senior figure he admires who succeeds in communicating expectations and holding people to account without aggression.

For your part, work at becoming more decisive when tough decisions are called for, while maintaining a balance between the needs of the business and the individual. And don't abdicate responsibility for the difficult things, such as communicating bad news. A senior manager I know was so embarrassed at having to make someone redundant that, in an attempt to sugar the pill, he used language so positive that the employee left the meeting room completely unaware that his contract had been terminated.

Don't let employees play one of you off against the other. People may get the idea that they can sneak requests past you more easily and may start to avoid him. This could lead to an imbalance in your workloads and will almost certainly create animosity between you, as your partner feels his authority undermined. So, if it's an issue that you have already both agreed should be his responsibility and someone tries to involve you instead, you'll need to redirect it back to your colleague.

But to address the issue of bullying, there's a difference between plain-speaking and rudeness, between bluntness and aggression. If your partner steps over the line from reprimand to bullying, he could be faced with an industrial tribunal from an unhappy employee. This could cost the business thousands of pounds and create a negative atmosphere in the company. He might also find himself out of a job.

If you suspect this may be the case, you'll need to be straight with him about the dangers of continuing this behaviour. Much as you prefer to avoid confrontation, you owe it to the company and your job partner to provide a warning.

Your softer style has a lot to commend it, especially in these difficult times, when many people feel insecure and unappreciated. You just need to demonstrate through your behaviour that, while you make an effort to understand the views of everyone you deal with, you're no pushover.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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