Managing Conflict in Startups
When it happens socially it can lead to lost friendships, ostracism and, in the extreme cases, violence and bloodshed. Perhaps less prominent, but certainly more prevalent, is conflict in the workplace, which can be quietly disruptive, passive-aggressive or outright rebellious.
The startup environment is a sensitive area in and of itself, with a bubbling broth of brilliant ideas and high-octane energy communicating between team members. All fine and dandy until the vision goes out of alignment and some dissent occurs. Maybe one team member disagrees with the founder's decision-making, or changes their overall objective in the company's future. Maybe two developers are arguing over a technical method and neither will back down. What's the best way of dealing with conflict issues?
Forewarned is Forearmed
In the first place, it helps to be forewarned. Don't just assume that life will be perfect, because your team is coming together and your business plan is starting to look like a real road to success. Remember human nature and be prepared to deal with conflict before it happens, rather than reacting to it when it does. Consider in advance all the potential areas where conflict might arise, and try to eradicate them. Draw up a conflict resolution strategy with defined stages, to work out how you will address potential issues and resolve them.
Build from the Ground Up
First and foremost, take a good look at yourself and, employing the radical candor approach, pinpoint your own shortcomings. Do you tend to be over-zealous in your demands, for example? Sometimes those high-octane personalities don't quite understand that others can't match their level of genius and frenetic energy. Do you have a short fuse when dealing with disappointment, and could this remedied by improving your communication skills? If you start with identifying your own weaknesses, then you can try and construct a working environment that avoids exposing those weaknesses. While you work on your own emotional and managerial skills, structure your hierarchies and collaborative techniques in a way that will cause as little friction as possible.
It's Business, not Personal
It's important to separate prickly personalities from cultural and environmental factors that might cause conflict. There's always going to be a Sheldon somewhere in the mix, whose ego, or lack of intuitive perception, may cause ripples in your startup pond. That's a given and can't be helped if their creative brilliance is elemental to your business success. What you can change are any factors in your workplace environment or behaviors that could lead to friction. One way to do this is to spread the radical candor approach across the team as a whole. Meet frequently and collaboratively, discuss any issues that people may be having trouble with, and try to nip any conflict in the bud by talking it out together.
Teamwork is a buzzword in recruitment that's harder to do than to say. If one or more of your team is at loggerheads with one or more of the others, it has a knock-on effect which can erode the whole team's overall positive commitment, and affect their productivity. People might be reluctant to come to work and start looking elsewhere, but it can be as simple as an atmosphere of passive-aggressive stubbornness and detachment that undermines the radical candor approach to team co-operation. Someone who refuses to participate is bound to affect the performance of others, and will make collaborative innovation and problem-solving much more difficult and inaccessible.
Feedback is a vital component in the radical candor agenda for collaboration. but it can make many people feel uncomfortable. Both founders and employees want feedback from each other to encourage improvement, and you should make a point of asking for and giving it regularly. Maybe daily scrums are too frequent, but a weekly feedback meeting allows enough time for issues to develop, while hopefully not allowing enough time for them to cause conflict. Be radically candid about the need for feedback and what you want to deliver, but don't be harsh.
The main problem with feedback is not what's said but the way that it's said, and quite often hackles will go up just because the person giving the feedback is not approaching it in the right way. The common tendency is to point out things that are not being done correctly or productively, but these should be identified in a positive and kind way rather than in a critical and negative one. Negativity and criticism almost always cause friction, so try and think carefully how to say what needs to be said without being personal or harmful.
If you schedule weekly feedback meetings, this gives you a chance to prepare ahead of time what you're going to say and to whom. Make it as clear as possible that you have put thought into your comments, and be as kind as you can in asking for a change in behavior or techniques. Don't just give a vague criticism, but identify specifics and suggest possible improvements, so as to encourage rather than slap down. The main thing is to avoid putting someone on the defensive so that they react poorly. One obvious no-no is to compare one person's performance with another; it's a team, not a competition, and everyone has a role in it.
Google has been doing some investigation into the concept of Psychological Safety in teamwork, based on research pioneered by Harvard behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson. This focuses on preventing defensive behaviors by creating an environment where each member of the team feels psychologically safe to interact within the team, without fear of criticism or demonstrating ignorance. In such an environment, team development and learning is enabled and more overall productivity results.
Google has used Edmondson's research with their own teams to identify and reduce the emergence of defensive behaviors by working on psychological safety. Their website guide is a good place to start learning about this, and offers useful tools for examining and improving team effectiveness with this strategy.