Winning together: conflict resolution tactics for startup founders

As a executive coach I support startup founders, CEOs, senior executives and other tech leaders in their pursuit of entrepreneurial success in Silicon Valley.  Their leadership development goals prioritize enhancing emotional intelligence, improving interpersonal communication and honing conflict resolution skills for managerial effectiveness.  The startup life is often grueling as co-founders face high pressure, high stakes decision-making during the rapid growth of their company.  Harjeet Taggar, former Y Combinator partner, once wrote, “The relationship between co-founders is usually the single biggest risk to a startup in the earliest stages, it’s certainly the most common reason for failure we see at YC.”  According to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, successful conflict management requires skillful self management, and the ability to separate self-interest from winning solutions “You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.”

Seasoned entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley recognize that it’s not just the idea, product or timing of a startup that sets the stage for success, but arguably the founders’ ability to work together to tackle emerging problems as a company scales.  It means working through differences aligned in partnership rather than at odds with one another.  Just like the honeymoon phase of romantic relationships, early startup success can mask a lack of effective conflict management skills between founders.  When things are going well, it’s tempting to believe that major conflicts can be avoided.  While the gambling spirit is worn like a badge of honor among successful entrepreneurs, this is one gamble they can’t afford to lose.  Without practicing conflict resolutions skills early and often, they risk losing time and resources battling each other instead of leveraging their collective strengths when they need them most.  Gary Tan, former partner at Y Combinator shared with TechCrunch “Successful co-founders actually embrace conflict, and are constantly in the process of resolving it. If you can’t argue and arrive at the best solution, you’re not doing the work to actually have a real, healthy working relationship.”

So what works?  Evidence-based strategies like those developed by psychologist John Gottman are applicable beyond marital relationships, and have been successfully utilized by other respected startup coaches in Silicon Valley.  Gottman’s research has a proven track-record for both relationship success as well as predicting relationship failure with scientifically rigorous precision.

1.  Aspire to ‘win’ as a team, not as individuals.  

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When your team is busy arguing over every minor detail your competitors are busy winning, and your company is busy failing.  

There’s a saying in Silicon Valley that it’s better to have an A team with a B idea, than a B team with an A idea. Dedicate yourself to operating as an A member of an A team.  Each member of your A team has lived their life aspiring to win on an individual level, using tactics that work best for them as individuals.  The hardest part of submitting to a team is accepting others’ differences and shortcomings gracefully, and carrying on with your best work ethic and respect for others regardless of who’s slowing company progress.  You think “I never would have made that mistake!  This problem could have been avoided if they’d listened to me.”  When oversights, insufficient planning, unclear communication, failed efforts, personal problems, and fatigue set in, they can lead to setbacks in your combined efforts to succeed as a team.  Adopt the mental framework that ‘winning’ is modeling cooperation and flexibility, ‘losing’ is fighting to get your way all the time.  Winning is practicing humility and accepting constructive feedback because it sets the best stage for improvement.  Are you using tactics to succeed as a team or are you using tactics that are better suited to individual success?  Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make progress as a team?

2.  Recognize that company success is tied to your team’s willingness to trust one another.  By working as part of a founder team, you are acknowledging you are better off working together versus alone.  If you agree to build something with someone you are agreeing to rely on them, and you must also be reliable.

Founders of a company are gambling on each other, and there is no way to gamble without trust.  Partial trust begets mistrust.

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Can you trust that your cofounder has the best interest of the company at heart? Are you both committed to making the relationship work and the company successful?  If you are not all in, you introduce risk to the foundation of your company.  Trust functions to give team members a “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  By agreeing to work with and rely on one another, you’ve accepted that each person adds important value, unique insights, and specialized abilities that compliment yours.  By giving this to one another you maximize the time and attention you have for your own contributions instead of using your energy to raise doubts or second guess others’ work.

 

3.  Attempting to track and keep score of who’s working harder or contributing more ‘worth’ wastes time, fosters animosity and reduces positive synergy. 

Everyone’s best effort looks different, so spending time making comparisons rarely produces progress for the relationship or the company.

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According to University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ogolsky and Texas State University’s Christine Gray, people who keep score in their relationships damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity.  Co-founders and team members should aim to delegate responsibilities based on ability and expertise, and if a continual imbalance in the workload emerges, plan to discuss this as a team to solve for more efficient allocation of tasks that factors in individual strengths, resources and availability.  Avoid placing blame when ever possible, and focus on actionable solutions that are tied to current circumstances.  The potential for success is maximized when everyone’s strengths are being efficiently utilized in real time.

 

4.  Create space for differences in opinion- exploring these differences will generate the most ingenuous solutions.  Aim to facilitate a wide range of possibilities, and take an objective approach to problem-solving.

Even if you don’t agree with a particular solution, it’s more effective if everyone shares their vision how this solution could result in success or failure.

This style of debate fosters constructive involvement and reduces power struggles.  If you oppose a decision, it’s not sufficient to point out a suggested plan’s low probability of success.  Research and prepare an outline of alternative action-oriented solutions to share with the team.

5.  Pay attention to people’s feelings.  Conflict will naturally give rise to emotional expression that can work in your team’s favor.  Strong emotional overtones are bound to emerge during a heated debate- take this as a sign that people care deeply about the work, about the team’s success, and that everyone at the table wants to avoid pitfalls.  Identify what people are feeling and why.  Let their answers inform how to proceed based on the expressed ideas.  If the discussion doesn’t lead to an agreed upon direction, rely on people’s primary areas of expertise as a guide for who has the most insight for the final call.  If the plan doesn’t work as out, take part in supporting a change in course quickly to minimize stalled productivity.

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6.  Ignoring reoccurring bad vibes between team members will only lead to bigger problems- resolving conflict is one problem startup founders CAN control.  The sooner you address them, the sooner you can get back to business.

Lastly, if all diplomatic efforts fail, agree to seek outside advice. I always recommend that founders and executive teams establish a range of outside resources (experienced mentors, business advisors, legal counsel) to give your team the insight it needs to resolve conflict.  Having an outsider broker your disagreement will end the gridlock- it’s like couples therapy for co-founders.  This might be what saves your startup from sinking.  Your team should agree in advance to take the advice with the goal of moving past this stage with finality.

 

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And don’t lose your sense of humor!  At fast-growing startups, the sheer magnitude of work should be complemented with some light-heartedness.  Laugh in solidarity at the crazy, silly things that you face together as a team- it will help lighten the mood.  When you look back at this time in your life, those are the things you’ll remember with a sense of gratitude and character-building strength.

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Are your dating skills ruining your love life? 4 dumb dating habits to drop.

Most accounts of modern dating describe finding lasting love as more elusive than ever.  Thanks to mobile dating apps, dating has evolved into a finger-swiping game of ‘matching’ with people whose real intention for long-term dating is nearly impossible to determine.  Being an executive and dating coach in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me a front row seat to this phenomenon with an inside view of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The highly competitive tech scene here is also known for having an awkward dating culture where both men and women can develop some dumb habits that thwart their long term relationship goals.  I feel it’s my duty to share them publicly, air out the gender themes I see, and hopefully shed some light on the issue so more people are successful in their dating endeavors.

My clients are bright, healthy, charismatic people who bemoan their dating struggles as real a ‘pain point’ in their life.  In my last article on learned optimism, I outlined the rationale for viewing problems through a positive, solution-focused lens, and how to hold yourself accountable for your role in a problem.  When a client tells me “I’d like to meet someone and settle down into a long-term relationship but I’m having a tough time finding them.”  I’ll ask “What strategies are you using to meet eligible people?  Tell me, what are you currently doing to build a long-term relationship with someone?”  This is when the storyline starts to reveal dating habits that can be major roadblocks to developing a lasting romantic relationship.

master-of-none-5.w710.h473A 30 year old male client of mine shared with me how Season 2 of the Netflix hit series Master of None,(episode ‘First Date‘) struck a chord with him.   In this episode, Dev (Aziz Ansari) meets a myriad of women and for various reasons, experiences failure to launch towards a meaningful relationship with any of them.  In 2015, Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg co-wrote Modern Romance: An Investigation, a book that examined the evolution of dating patterns and coupledom. The concept of ‘overchoice’ in dating, an idea first introduced in Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book Future Shock, and later explored in Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice has become a mainstay in modern dating culture.  Ansari concludes that while having access to more potential mates might be enjoyable up front, it eventually makes the process of choosing and investing in someone much harder, and can ultimately lead to less romantic fulfillment.

Dumb dating habit #1:  Going on a never-ending cycle of first dates, waiting for that ‘love at first sight’ feeling to signal when it’s time to finally pursue someone for a long term relationship.

First impressions are often not a good predictor of who’ll be a good fit for a long term relationship.  In my observation, guys need to take initiative and figure out how to emotionally invest in the process of dating if they want a long term relationship.  A lot of men are stuck in a conundrum when they’re looking for a girlfriend- they feel safer with more options, but more options leads to low emotional investment, which leads to a sense of emptiness, which they fill with more creating more options.  It’s a vicious circle!  Men, start by figuring out what you need to do to care more about the person you’re meeting for a date.

Males are commonly raised to avoid vulnerable emotions, and learn to keep a safe distance from their feelings, especially in matters of the heart.  As a result, they can miss out on developing emotional intimacy with someone because they fail to take an active role in building it.  In movies, men are portrayed as reluctant participants in intimacy – cinematic stereotypes such as the manic pixie dream girl archetype evolved in order to protect masculine identity in the face of falling in love.

REBOOT:  If you don’t work to get inside your feelings and figure out how to genuinely invest in caring about the person sitting across from you, these feelings will not mysteriously emerge on their own.  I know you believe you just haven’t met someone who’s attractive enough, smart/accomplished enough, humble and supportive and interested in YOU enough.  If this storyline is sounding a lot like you, it’s time to see it for what it is – you’ve got to rise to the occasion and take initiative.  Make a real effort to be curious, listen, absorb and relate.  Look at it from an economic perspective- wise investments of all kinds pay off big!

Dumb dating habit #2:  You’re using dating as a way to compete with your friends- in this game the last one to get off the single train wins.  

You’re struggling with choosing someone because you’re too busy rounding out your dating options for more bragging rights with your friends.  A proud 20-something year old guy once told me that he and his male roommates had a world map in their house with colored pushpins in it to represent the countries of origin of women they’d each slept with.  Why?  Because it made them look cool to all their friends, duh!  But do you really want to be the last one who still cares about playing this game?  It’s like you’re that last guy in your middle school friend group who still cares about who has the most/best Pokémon cards.

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Dude at some point, it’s not that crucial anymore!  Eventually, most guys want to be with someone that will stand by them when life gets hard, someone to enjoy private moments with, who will honestly be there for them through the thick and thin of their life.  Meanwhile, do you want to still be scrolling through your phone contacts looking for someone who actually cares about what happens to you? (besides your family!  Not your ex either, she’s probably happily married now with a baby on the way.)

REBOOT:  The price tag for a real relationship is steep, and you need to be willing to pay the price.  Commitment, vulnerability, giving FOMO a grown ass man smack down, and dealing with someone’s shortcomings because they have to put up with yours.  When was the last time you heard of getting something worth having for free?

Dumb dating habit # 3:  Not noticing when your mind magically fills in the blanks in someone’s potential instead of accepting the current reality as it stands.  The problem with this is that your brain gets caught in a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations.  This can lead to feeling mad and resentful when the person falls short of your version of them. 

Sometimes women can get ahead of themselves while dating, and lose track of the difference between what is reality and what is wishful thinking.  This happens when they fail to notice that someone isn’t demonstrating a consistent investment in getting serious with them.  When you fantasize a million steps ahead about how your next dates will play out together it can lead your brain to believing it should and it will, and then when it inevitably doesn’t, you feel shortchanged and frustrated, but keep hoping things will improve.  Unrealistic expectations can also lead people to cut things off prematurely which is sabotaging your #relationshipgoals.  Confirmation bias  is a form of faulty thinking with plenty of scientific evidence supporting people’s propensity to believe something is true because they would like it to be true. Motivated by wishful thinking, individuals will stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

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REBOOT:  DO NOT GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. If someone isn’t consistently making an effort to set concrete plans with you, showing a genuine interest in connecting with you, stop giving him your mental attention!  Be ready to harness some discipline because old habits die hard.  You’re perfectly rigorous about keeping your diet paleo, you’re awesome at limiting your drinking to the weekends, but you let your mind go on a wild goose chase over every text thread in your phone!  You know you’re in trouble if the guy inside your head is always more fun to think about then the same guy whose text messages rarely extend beyond 3 words and you never quite know where things stand between the two of you.  Be honest with yourself.  Why would it make sense to want a relationship with someone who’s hot and cold towards you?  Inconsistency and unpredictability beget failure in building anything of value.  Open your eyes to the people who are making it clear they value you and want to spend time with you.

Dumb dating habit # 4:  You over-rely on dating apps and forget that prospective dating partners are everywhere!  Your attention is buried in your phone and you never (ever, ever) initiate conversation with a stranger for social purposes.  

Pretty much everyone is guilty of digital social isolation these days.  You’ve heard this before from those of us who evolved as human beings before the digital era.  By limiting yourself to socializing through online/text consumption you are actually limiting yourself to a communication method with WORSE social aptitude results not BETTER.  The quality of enjoyment, depth of expression and opportunity to build lasting relationships has evolved over billions of years through face to face communication.  Digital communication on the other hand has existed for a fraction of a mili-second and the jury is out if humanity would even survive if we continue to depend on it with today’s enthusiasm.  It’s not that I think people shouldn’t enjoy all the latest dating apps, follow each other on social media for entertainment, ease and efficiency, but aim to keep practicing your real life social skills.  Every single client who’s taken me up on my encouragement in this area has come back glowing with newfound empowerment and shock, really.  Like “I cannot believe I initiated a social conversation with a total stranger (sober, mind you!) AND DIDN’T DIE ON THE SPOT FROM ANGST.  I CAN DO ANYTHING NOW!!!”  YES!  That is the best feeling!

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Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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