Learning to embrace conflict as a part of startup culture
A startup is a journey of questions with as yet unidentified answers. Most startups fail because they never find true enough answers to succeed. Startups succeed when the founders are focused on finding the truest answers to their most important problems.
What is the best way to engineer a product that will delight customers? What is the most efficient channel to get that product into your customer’s’ hands? What is the most effective way to scale up that model to maximize the impact and commercial success of the business? Who are the right leaders to help achieve these goals? Even small questions seek “truth” – What color button on a website is most likely to convert the customer?
While there isn’t a single “truth” that is the correct answer to any of these questions – each fork in the road has more and less true answers. The job of the founder and leadership team is to find the truest path to success. Unlike large companies operating at scale, at a startup the unknowns are overwhelming, and data cannot by itself resolve most of these decisions.
Most team leaders will agree on the majority of decisions that need to be made and good startup teams seem telepathic at times, but there are inevitably going to be profound disagreements. It’s critical that entrepreneurs embrace these conflicts because solving them properly is often the difference between success and failure.
If the decisions were easy, someone would have made them already. The conflict exists because the answers aren’t obvious. It’s in the conflict that the right answers emerge. You have to lean into the conflict to win.
Conflict Failure Modes
Avoiding the Conflict
I believe the most common conflict failure mode at a startup is when the leadership disagrees on what should happen, but no one speaks up because it’s uncomfortable to do so. The team is in full denial that there is even disagreement on the hard choices that need to be made. As a result, these choices aren’t made at all and the leadership of the company makes the wrong decisions while pretending that everything is okay. Inevitably, after the company fails, leadership team members lament that they knew that the company was going in the wrong direction and should have spoken up sooner. Yes, they should have.
Ego makes conflict painful because we try to avoid hurting others’ feelings, while protecting our own. But for many, winning the argument becomes more important than the company making the right decision. Therefore, when we engage conflict, we become emotional and want to win for ourselves, confusing this emotion with our desire to win collectively. While each of us struggles with this tension, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that everyone in the debate naturally is subjective on the superior value of their perspective. This tendency can often lead to anger, insecurity, and unnecessary emotion that makes conflict painful, relationship threatening and unproductive. Unfortunately, ego frightens many team members to shift into conflict avoidance.
Strong Personalities vs. Wall Flowers
Often in ego-driven conflict, stronger personalities will win despite having no greater insight on the truth. It is crucial for a company to make sure that conflict is not resolved simply by the strength of personality. Otherwise, the company will have a scenario where personal victory – “I need to be right” – comes before company victory – “we need to be right.” The wallflowers have no less claim on the truth of their market, operation, or product. They often just have less eagerness to fight.
Softening The Edges
In polite conversation with friends and relatives, we are all taught to soften the edges of our conflict. In other words, we pretend that we mostly agree, even when we don’t. This adaptive approach to conflict at least arguably makes sense in a social setting. We can politely agree to disagree largely because in social settings we don’t have to collaborate to make critical decisions. At startups, softening the edges can be catastrophic. It causes leaders to work in opposite directions or procrastinate making the hard decisions.
Revert to Mean
Empathy is often misapplied in a startup context. It’s great to embrace the idea that everyone’s opinion counts, but critical to understand that these opinions do not yield equally correct outcomes. The inability to decisively move forward, and instead find a middle ground on each topic, leads to Frankenstein solutions that rarely yield the correct answer. In this way, the startup prioritizes compromise over finding truth. If there is always a more true answer and team members are in conflict on what that answer is, there is little probability that the compromise answer is the right one. While everyone might feel good that their point of view was persuasive to a consensus outcome, they will feel much worse when they realize that compromise and truth have little in common at a startup.
How to Embrace Conflict
It’s easy to say that a company should embrace conflict and far harder to do so successfully. Ultimately, engaging conflict is among the most significant cultural challenges for startups, but also among the most important.
Reframe Conflict As The Search for Truth
Most people don’t think about a startup as a search for truth. It’s important to frame the quest of the startup this way and make sure that everyone understands that the purpose of a startup is experiment constantly in the service of finding the best answer to pressing problems. Everyone has the right to question the assumptions and no one has a monopoly on being correct – yet in aggregate the company making the right decisions will make or break its success.
Call out Objectivity and Subjectivity
Companies need to build a culture where it is okay to question whether a colleague is being fully objective. By acknowledging the natural human tendency toward ego, it should become okay to check with colleagues whether their judgment is being clouded by their own need to win the argument, versus their desire to find the right answer. By being willing to engage in this type of self-reflection and giving others the license to question you, egos can be moderated.
Be Hard on Problems, Not People
Remind everyone that it is the problem, not the people, that should be the focus of the conflict. When team members start to attribute negative intentions and motives to their colleagues, it becomes very difficult to put ego aside and focus on finding the right answer. By being soft on people and hard on problems, the company can build trust as the basis for the exercise of doing the hard work of making decisions collectively, rather than playing the ego game.
While maintaining empathy for individuals, the culture shouldn’t have empathy for ideas. The best ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, from the CEO to the most junior team members, and everyone should be speaking truth to power at a startup. Having said that, everyone must accept that not all ideas are equal. Being respectful of everyone’s contributions is often confused with valuing all ideas as equally likely to be truth. Every single idea has a relative truth value to all others and must face that crucible.
Debate, Don’t Fight
Ego turns conflict into a fight. The goal is to avoid the fight, but engage the debate. Try to be objective and curious about others’ points of view. Listen to each other and work toward finding the truth. Keep debating until you find it and work hard to parse differences in assumptions and beliefs. The challenge is to build a culture where team members work as hard as possible to defuse the fight by showing enthusiasm for the debate.
Hard decisions take time and deserve intense debate, but when debate becomes a fight, it’s time to take a break and calm the negative energy. When taking a break, always address when the debate will continue, or breaks can often slip into conflict avoidance.
Gauge Magnitude of Beliefs
Some people just like to argue for the intellectual value, even if they don’t feel strongly about a particular outcome. Others are stubborn and don’t like to lose arguments, on principle. Both of these instincts must be subordinated. However, there is often truth in the magnitude an individual feels about an issue. Those who are effective at subverting their egos, but feel very strongly on a hypothesis, often have strong insights powering the magnitude of their belief. It’s important to listen to those who feel most strongly – particularly when they are not the strongest personalities at the table.
Consider Hierarchy & Roles
On teams where debate becomes unproductive, drawing lines around areas of responsibility can help. Deference to greater experience, domain knowledge, or responsibility for the outcome are all reasonable solutions for many debates. Let anyone add to the debate, but in many cases it is best to leave the decision to the responsible party. Note that this approach can be risky—if an individual pulls rank too often and he’ll find himself without a partner or team, and will often lose credibility in the next debate.
At Some Point, The Debate Must End
Truly convincing or being convinced of the best decision for the company is the optimal path to resolve a conflict, but it is not the only way. Sometimes a team has sincerely delved into the differences as much as possible and is running out of time to make a decision. In those cases, the company must find a way to pick a direction and move forward as one. Constant dissent on the decision, once made, can be as problematic as not engaging the conflict in the first place. After the decision has been made, the company needs the benefit of a single team moving forward together.
Get Out Of The Way
When a decision is made, everyone must lock arms and move forward or simply get out of the way. We’ve seen many circumstances where talented team members needed to part ways after a high-quality debate, because they simply couldn’t agree on how to move forward. Sometimes startup leaders must accept that if they aren’t part of the solution, they are part of the problem.
You’re Paid For Your Opinion
I had a boss who frequently repeated the statement, “you’re paid for your opinion.” He was encouraging energetic debate by trying to draw out the wallflowers and build a culture where the stronger personalities learned to listen. Crafting this type of culture is the key to a successful team. Studies have shown the difference between good marriages and bad ones isn’t the lack of fights, but learning how to fight productively. This is also true for startup teams.
A CEO who believes he is always right, and rams decision making through an organization, will create a culture of people who feel frustrated, suppressed, and will regularly make poor decisions. A CEO who integrates dissent and healthy debate into the company will be primed for success and likely find the truth she is seeking.