The best startup teams don’t shy away from some healthy friction and heated debates between team members or founders. That’s the way smart people with innovative insights make real change happen. Yet we all know that there is a fine line here, beyond which heated debates generate so much emotion and drama that the entire team becomes dysfunctional.
The obvious challenge is to channel these interactions in a way that maximizes their value to the startup as positive results, without letting them slip into a non-productive or even toxic mode. An equally important challenge is to maintain a culture that rewards engagement, since many people are uncomfortable challenging the views of others.
For feedback of any type to be effective, there can be no quick judgment of right or wrong. Yet it certainly is possible for team members to not deliver feedback well, or for the receiver to accept it poorly or even ignore it. Either of these problems turns conflict into unhealthy friction, which can be avoided with the following initiatives:
1. Be the one to ask the right questions.
By asking open-ended and relevant questions, you allow team members to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their views. By default, this role falls on the entrepreneur or a senior team member to establish a culture of openness to innovation and change.
2. Make team debates a managed rather than ad hoc process.
Pick an appropriate forum for questions and debates, such as weekly quality-review meetings, rather than water-cooler gatherings. Make sure the discussions are facilitated and limited in scope and time, to prevent wandering off subject and redundant discussions.
3. Don’t allow titles and roles to limit the communication.
A large perceived power difference will change the dynamics of any feedback discussion or debate. Less experienced team members will only really communicate with peers, and maybe their direct manager, while executives may interact more with mentors and outside experts.
4. Constrain debates to neutral and non-confrontational language.
Make all feedback constructive and non-emotional, and avoid personal judgments and labels, such as lazy or inept. People tend to listen and accept feedback more readily if it is couched around recent relevant activities and clarifications.
5. All members must provide a balance of positives and negatives.
Always include positive recommendations when pointing out problems. Team members who consistently provide only negative arguments will be discounted and will poison the problem-resolution process. Everyone must be perceived as participating for maximum impact.
6. Eliminate indirect and second-hand feedback and arguments.
Team members who highlight comments from people who are not present create unhealthy friction. Always stick to the facts that you know, your own observations and available published sources, rather than quoting anonymous industry experts. People are wary of second-hand data.
7. Keep the discussion focused on business rather than personal.
Disparagement of a team member’s character is always inappropriate and toxic. Don’t mix observations about work issues with revelations about private relationships, or activities outside the work environment.
By definition, startups are dealing with uncharted territory and change. As an investor, when I meet a team that exhibits no conflict, I conclude that either the founder is a tyrant, or the team is weak. Neither of these alternatives bodes well for long-term success. On the other hand, excessive and unmanaged conflict is debilitating and unproductive.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t survive alone, and you can’t make every decision alone. The best entrepreneurs surround themselves with people smarter than themselves, ask the right questions, coalesce and learn from the input, and motivate the team forward to success.
Have you worked lately on your ability to rise above the conflict?