(And Save Yourself Endless Agony)
Over the last few weeks I’ve had some lengthy conversations with colleagues about a common challenge facing small business owners: how to choose ideal clients—those with integrity—just as we would choose our employees, vendors, associates and friends. I know that many businesses today are desperate for new customers, simply struggling to increase their business any way they can. But it’s important to remain patient and picky, even in hard times, because allowing a dysfunctional client into your heart can be disastrous. You may open yourself up to unreasonable demands (that you try to fill), unrealistic expectations (that you try to meet), and unfounded accusations (that may land you in litigation). These people will sap your energy, distract you from critical tasks, and blame you for their troubles—no matter how much you try to help them.
Who are these people? And how can you spot them, especially when they’re not holding up a “Run like Hell” sign? Actually, they’re not who you might expect: pushy, slick New York stereotypes. Quite the opposite. By most accounts, these people tend to be extremely charming—and disarming. They’re funny and delightful. Their primary characteristic is charisma, and we’re happily taken in by their charms, like voters entranced by a smooth talking politician.
But like politicians, these people will tell you anything—and then do something completely different. They make a slew of unfounded claims and promises. And they have no conscience, no regrets. (Does Bernie Madoff come to mind?) At first, you keep trusting these people again and again, even when they demonstrate that they’re not trustworthy. You can’t accept what they do, mainly because you’re unable to conceive of anyone not having a conscience like yours.
Part of the problem (and this goes for all of us) is that your professional ego gets in the way. These folks reach out for your help and tell you how much they need you. You, in turn, are flattered by the challenge of rescuing them from their problems: “I’m going to help you conquer the world, when nobody else can!” You’re held close to them by your own compassion—until some conflict or difference of opinion emerges. Then…you start to see their character flaws in the light of day.
The minute you refuse to fully commiserate with these people, they turn on you. Now they’re the “victims”; they blame you for their troubles and, naturally, they’re helpless to fix these problems themselves. And the more you stand on principles, the worse the situation gets, for, as psychiatrist F. Scott Peck described in his 1998 book, these are “People of the Lie.”
Sadly, this is not an isolated phenomenon. I’ve watched this happen to many great business leaders when they get too close to these clients; they allow their professional boundaries to disappear, against their better judgment. While they see the warning signs, they’ve chosen to rationalize them. They tell themselves, “Yeah, I know this guy seems dysfunctional, but maybe he’s just ‘quirky.’ ” Or perhaps they convince themselves that despite the hazards, “This client seems like the perfect fit for what I care about.” (Of course, what they really care about is the monthly retainer.)
To make matters worse, such executives and business owners often keep revisiting these toxic relationships, trying to fix things, the way they usually do. But they can’t. In trying to “rescue the victim” they end up being the victim. No matter what they do, they cannot stop such clients from maligning them. They try to do the right thing, but just end up getting tainted. They may even try to destroy your reputation.
If you are one of these owners, you have to accept that you cannot change these clients (or employees), because they don’t have the willingness to change. Stop reaching back into hell to check whether it’s still hot. It is. Leave these people their worship of chaos and destruction, re-establish your boundaries and move on without them.
This may not be easy, but as the great motivational speaker, Les Brown, says: “If we do what’s hard, life gets easy. If we do what’s easy, life gets hard.” In fact, many companies suffer because their owners put up with these kinds of relationships too long; it seems easier, short term, to avoid the issues and try to get by. What they need, however, is to separate compassion from justice.
If you’re trying to rescue a dysfunctional person, communicate with them directly and clearly, even though you know they couldn’t care less—this is where compassion ends and justice begins. You may be congenitally altruistic, but you must also protect yourself. These are nasty people: cunning, baffling and often powerful. Get clear about who they are.
Learn to recognize the warning signs of such behavior. (How do these people treat their own employees? What are their core values that show up in what they do, not just what they say?) Practice emotional detachment. And maintain your boundaries, for they will make your life miserable if you get too close.
Finally, if this kind of stuff hits you hard and knocks you off balance, talk to a professional coach. There is no way to get out of these tailspins alone. You will need a “champion,” one who will support you when you’re most vulnerable, help you understand why this is causing you such despair, and most important, what you can do to move forward and be a real service to yourself and others.