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Doing Business with People of Good Character

Avoiding Troublemakers and Difficult People

“Do business with men of good character.” Such was the common advice traditionally handed down the generations from father to son, from before the days of our first president:

“Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.” – George Washington

Nowadays, the often-quoted maxim is that people do business with people they know, like, and trust. As a “rule” of business, the concept is well understood, especially in sales circles, and it essentially carries the same meaning as its predecessor. A reputation for being trustworthy and as someone with whom others would like to transact business is built from within one’s own good character. Honesty, integrity, and fairness are just three qualities that we and our customers look for in each other, and these relationships are built over time.

“You can’t buy a good reputation; you must earn it.” – Harvey Mackay, businessman and author

All wonderful stuff, but what about people that we must do business with who are NOT of impeccable character? We’ve all run into them, at one time or another.

  1. People who are in it for themselves, often for money and sometimes for credit or fame.

  2. People with major control issues, stemming from their own insecurities, greed, or an inherent inability to work with others in a partnership or as a team player.

  3. People with ingrained bad character, who are naturally “gifted” with arrogance and airs of superiority, nasty and bad-tempered, devious, hostile, genuinely disagreeable, dishonest, or just plain cruel.

In entertainment, we recognize these types fairly quickly, because they’re often caricatures of what we find in real life. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons.”

In real life, we typically don’t spot these negative or destructive individuals so easily, unless their bad reputations precede them. And that they are believed. Oftentimes, these individuals can be quite pleasant until a tipping point in their psychological makeup is reached. Or until they see an opportunity to improve their personal prospects at the expense of others. There’s the co-worker who feels threatened by more capable or talented team members and works to undermine them. The business partner who suddenly ousts minority shareholders from their start-up, just before a lucrative acquisition is announced. The prospect who enjoys making a hopeful sales team jump through virtual hoops with no intentions of buying. And the cliché – but true! – instances of the friendly boss who puts unwelcome pressure on young female employees. I’m sure that you can come up with a few examples from your own experiences.

So how do we avoid them? We don’t want to assume the worst when we first meet someone. I’ve found that the old tried-and-true advice to get to know someone before “opening up” to be very helpful. I’m from the Midwest, where people may come across as reserved or “put-offish” when you first meet them, but are discovered to be sincere, friendly folks after you get to know each other. Trust and relationships take time to develop; they can’t be rushed, or you may find that they were false from the start.

“A man is known by the company he keeps.” - Aesop

Yes, a person’s reputation can precede them. Stay clear of those who are known to be negative in their attitudes, words, or actions, as well as those with questionable ethics. If you must work with such people, be pleasant but aware of your interactions, share only what information you must to get your job done, and be polite in dealing with them. Don’t engage in gossip or join in their negative speculations about projects, business, or for heaven’s sake, religion, money, or politics. And sometimes you need to terminate the business relationship, walk away from the deal, or even seek other employment.

In a follow-up article, I talk about handling difficult people. But know that all human relationships, from personal through institutional, often suffer when dealing with individuals of bad character. When it’s a boss, expect deteriorating employee morale, poor work quality, and high employee turnover. When it’s within a buyer/customer relationship, expect unrealistic demands or timetables, poor product quality, degraded customer service, dishonest business practices, and loss of revenue. When it’s your spouse, expect unhappiness, stress, abuse, separation, and/or divorce. A business relationship, especially a partnership, is very much like a marriage: there has to be mutual trust and respect. It’s not enough for all the boxes to be checked in everything but integral decency. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to have a mutually satisfying relationship when one party is acting from a place of bad character. It dooms personal relationships and can irreparably damage both personal and corporate reputations.

One of the best ways to cultivate relationships with people of good, strong character and reputations is to develop those qualities within ourselves. Like does attract like. And people want to do business with those whom they know, like, and trust. It’s true that a business owner’s personal characteristics are imprinted on his or her business. Even the largest corporations elucidate their core values. Mission statements are formulated around those values, and in turn become part of their image and branding to the outside world.

Good character and a solid reputation are built around many positive traits. Each individual will have a focus on those that are particularly meaningful to them. Highly organized people may highlight self-discipline, timeliness, reliability, and fairness. Religious individuals and institutions may value humility, honesty, faith, and service above all else. Friendly, gregarious “people persons” may lead with kindness, loyalty, consideration, and helpfulness. All wonderful qualities that serve to develop good character and positive relationships.

So, to do business with people of good character: first, be a person of good character yourself. You will soon be recognized as an individual and business owner who is ethical, fair, and honest, someone who treats other people well. Enter business relationships with the assumption that others are, too, but be prepared to terminate a relationship should the opposite prove true. As another Founding Father said:

“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.” – Benjamin Franklin


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