Confronting Bad Behaviors By Managers And Partners Takes Courage, Clarity And A Firmwide Commitment

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One of most dreaded tasks of any MP is dealing with difficult people, particularly partners. It’s awkward at best, messy and dysfunctional at worst.

While it’s human nature to avoid tough conversations, the risks of doing nothing far outweigh the pushback that can result, said Tamera Loerzel, partner at ConvergenceCoaching.

Marc Rosenberg agreed. Rosenberg, founder of The Rosenberg Associates, estimates that partner conflicts and poor communication have afflicted 60% of the firms he’s worked with over the last 25 years. “Unless the partners of a firm work well together, it’s almost impossible for them to achieve high levels of results,” he said.

Even so, firm leaders often ignore problems hoping they’ll go away on their own. Partners say nothing. The MP doesn’t act. “Sweeping problems under the carpet only creates lumps,” Rosenberg said.

IPA in 2020 asked both Loerzel and Rosenberg to bring clarity, and possible solutions, to a problem many firms would rather overlook.


  • Jealousy – Partners can feel resentment toward those who outperform them and make more money as a result. Talented technicians are generally not as talented at securing new business, Rosenberg said. A technical partner may think, “I agree they should get paid more, but three times what I make? Someone’s gotta do the work.” The rainmaker may think, “I have a lot more to do with making this firm successful than you do, so too bad.”
  • Entitlement – Some partners get the attitude that once they’ve become partner – a difficult goal to achieve – they can do whatever they want. “They say, ‘Yeah, I’m all for accountability,’ ” Rosenberg says, “but they think, ‘as long as it’s not about me.’ ”
  • Coasting – A smart partner with a big client base and great salary may think they’ve earned the right to take it easy after 30 years of hard work. Rosenberg said he worked with a firm that wanted to grow, but when he asked a partner what he was doing to bring in more business, he responded, “Nothing. No one else is marketing, why should I?”
  • Passive aggression – Rosenberg sees a lot of silent head-nodding in agreement among partners at retreats, but a lot of bad-mouthing about the same topic afterward.


  • Jokes and jabs – Sometimes jokes are edgy, jabs feel aggressive and personal, and the entire culture feels mean.
  • Quid pro quo arrangements – ‘I won’t call out your flaws if you don’t call out mine,’ is bad for everyone.
  • Triangulating – One partner speaks to another partner to get a third partner to do something.

The effects of oppositional behavior do not stay within the partner group. Staff are watching how leaders interact with each other and subordinates. Every time a partner gets away with yelling – or worse, making someone cry, for example – the entire leadership team loses credibility, Loerzel said. Morale drops. Staff grow tired of walking on eggshells, lose interest in the firm and fail to invest in the firm’s progress. Eventually, they quit.

 NAME THE BEHAVIOR AND DEVELOP COMMITMENT STATEMENTS: The first step in dealing with unacceptable behavior is promptly calling it out for what it is, Loerzel said. When someone slams a hand on the desk during a retreat or planning session, makes a selfish comment or a punitive statement, Loerzel will stop the conversation and calmly point it out. “We want this to be positive and constructive,” she said, as an example. “This feels punishing right now.”

That simple step can set the group on a different path by pivoting the focus to a set of principles everyone can agree upon – the core values of the firm – or more specifically, the behaviors partners and leaders are expected to exhibit when dealing with others.

The behaviors should be spelled out in a commitment statement, signed by all leaders and discussed during performance reviews. The statement could include communicating with respect, being transparent, making time for staff and dealing with employees directly. A good rule of thumb is to treat staff as well as you treat clients, Loerzel said.

While technical skills can be measured objectively, personal skills are subjective, based on judgments and values. A set of rules takes subjectivity out of the equation, she said. Additionally, written expectations give leaders a management tool, which increases their confidence to initiate a difficult conversation and prepares them to enforce the commitment statement.

COUNSELING, COACHING AND CORRECTING: Rosenberg said written expectations should be bolstered by regular meetings with firm leaders to clarify the expectations and review written goals. “The problem is that most managing partners aren’t good at that.” Coaching leaders in a supportive way can work well, and he believes it’s more effective than tying behavior to compensation.

Some Common Partner-Staff Issues

Great technicians/terrible managers – It’s not uncommon for technical experts to struggle with managing people. Possible solution: Change their job responsibilities to maximize their strengths and minimize (or eliminate) managerial oversight.

Great rainmakers/terrible managers – Some leaders have good client relationships, a fat book of business and a revenue-generating engine on overdrive, yet they’re bullies with staff. The financial risk of losing that person is small compared with the damage being done every day. Possible solution: Privately counsel these individuals with behavior issues and work with them to correct them.

While some managers may have no self-awareness or a commitment to change, many simply don’t know a different way and need coaching, Loerzel said. Some are reacting to a fear of change, and some let old habits kick in without thinking about a new approach to managing conflict and improving communication.

Studies show the No. 1 reason people quit is because of their relationship with their boss. While both partners and managers should treat employees with respect, support them and encourage a collaborative environment, it’s equally important to help staff learn and grow. “It’s not just being a nice guy,” Rosenberg said. “Partners need to understand that.” People who mentor emerging leaders and challenge them can change the statistic that 80% of first-generation firms don’t make it to the second generation.

Upward evaluations of leaders/managers by the staff is another critical tool, he said, although many small firms do not use them. Leaders can also use positive peer pressure to bring abusive behavior under control. “Don’t wait. Speak up yourself,” he said. “Talk to that partner at a meeting, bring it up and get it on the table.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting. To subscribe to INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly click here.


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