3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup
A Note From The Editor
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When Lady Gaga learned about a little startup called Backplane, she loved the idea of a social networking site that would allow people with niche interests to create unique communities online. She provided big-name backing to the startup, adding a boost to its already abundant investment capital.
Where is Backplane now? Dead as a doornail. Internal conflicts between the founders led to mismanagement that drained all $18.9 million of the funding they’d received.
So, that's the lesson here: All the money and endorsements in the world won’t guarantee you success if you can’t manage internal conflicts. But, with a strategy in place to manage conflicts when they arise, you can strengthen your team’s resolve and improve its ability to handle future challenges.
Avoiding conflict doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Conflict itself isn’t the problem. When smart, passionate and talented people work together, conflict is inevitable. If there’s zero conflict, it’s likely because either you don’t think your partner can handle honest feedback, or you feel the relationship is so fragile that you’re already walking on eggshells.
A lack of conflict, in fact, signifies a fundamental rift in the relationship that will lead to unresolvable problems later on if the rfit isn’t addressed. As author David Richo has said, “To be adult in a relationship is not to be conflict-free; it’s to resolve conflicts mindfully.”
That's why dealing with disagreements early on is an opportunity to work effective conflict-resolution strategies into the DNA of your organization while your numbers are small.
Here are three ways to transform conflict from a concern to a tool that focuses passion on productive actions, improves communication and fosters strong relationships.
1. Check your vision.
If your partner and team members care deeply about your startup (as they should), they will have strong opinions about its strategy and direction. Although you may frequently disagree about the path you take, your end goals must be the same. This applies to both the vision of what the business accomplishes in the world and the culture within its walls.
To avoid catastrophic disagreements in the future, build a team of like-minded people. During candidate screenings for new positions, make sure your interviews include discussions about what candidates find attractive about your company and the direction they’d like to see the business take. Individuals who view the business in a profoundly different way than you do are much more likely to cause unnecessary frustration in the future.
If you aren’t all on the same page, you have more than a conflict on your hands -- you have a fundamental difference in how you understand your business. Disagreements with foundational values may not be reconcilable, but it’s best to communicate openly and find that out as early as possible. You may still be able to replace key players or pursue different endeavors altogether before you’re in too deep.
2. Demonstrate empathy.
No one wins if either person in a conflict walks away fuming. Research by Harvard Business School shows that most conflict resolution requires cooler heads and objective analysis. Rather than assign fault or pick a side, look for common ground and ways to move past the conflict.
Related: 7 Steps for Keeping Conflict Healthy
Have each person involved in a dispute share his or her view of the situation. Then, have each person try to describe what the other person’s view might be. This helps both parties understand the other person’s perspective and hopefully show some empathy.
This exercise helps get to the root of problems while validating, building trust and creating an atmosphere where team members can respectfully disagree but take the next step forward together.
One way my team has overcome its tendency to silo its efforts and ignore others’ needs is by working toward building our collective intelligence of our partners and consultants. Early on, we began collecting data and compiling information on these groups, only later realizing that providing our sales team with this data could improve their work with our consultants.
We didn’t mean to rob them of the enhanced familiarity and smoother workflow that would result; we simply developed tunnel vision and failed to take our internal partners into account, as well. Empathy, however, improved our relationships with our external partners and our teammates, resolving a conflict starting to take root.
A positive, trusting environment will also make giving and receiving feedback a more helpful practice. Constructive criticism can be tricky to receive, but it goes much more smoothly when people trust that the person dishing it out has the company's and the receiver’s best interests in mind.
3. Don’t resolve everything.
Compromise isn’t always possible, and neither is changing people’s minds. Establishing a clear tiebreaker policy will ensure everyone is heard and conflicts are settled in an efficient way that keeps the company moving forward.
Zapier defers infrastructure problems to one co-founder and marketing and customer-related problems to the other co-founder. This guarantees that the final decision is made by a fair and knowledgeable third party.
An expectation you may have when working at a company with a tiebreaker policy is that once you’ve expressed concerns, you must be able to move on in a manner that preserves the company and the relationship.
Of course, tiebreakers are rarely needed when open discussion is valued. Realizing that we cannot control people and that eradicating discord is impossible allows us to create an atmosphere where debate is welcome. Teams do better work when they’re free to challenge one other’s thinking. Just make sure you recognize the difference between productive debate between friends or colleagues and unhealthy fighting between adversaries.
Related: The 10 Benefits of Conflict
The alternative to conflict is apathy, so don’t fear disagreements. As long as conflict occurs in a high-trust environment, it will help your people and your company achieve greatness.