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Conflict in Start-ups

One-size-fits-all advice has its uses, but also limitations.  Anyone who wants to lose weight must consume fewer calories than he or she expends in energy.  Yet the person who is responsible for feeding a family, the person who travels extensively and often eats out, and the very active person will each have different challenges in maintaining a healthy weight.

From one perspective, conflict in a start-up should not be different from conflict in any other similarly sized organization.  And to be sure, some of the same factors that cause conflict in any organization – whether it is a family business or a partnership or a non-profit – can contribute to conflict in a start-up.  Yet start-ups also have some unique challenges, and I’ve seen some rather bad advice targeted to them. 

Here are some reasons why conflict in a start-up might be different from conflict in a more established organization.

Start-up founders frequently have to make a lot of decisions about a wide variety of things in a short time.  They tend not to have established practices and routines to fall back on because, well, they’re just starting up.  So decisions about personnel, about purchasing, about corporate culture, about priorities and about the product itself may have to be made in a relatively short time, often without a clear understanding of who should be making these decisions and on what basis.

Start-ups tend to have limited Human Resources support and may not have any.  This might be understandable, as HR is a cost center and start-ups with a small staff may not see it as a priority.  Yet no or limited HR support might mean that no one in the company has the skills necessary for dealing with difficult employees.  Without an HR specialist on hand, founders may not understand their legal responsibilities to employees or the legal liabilities that employee behavior can subject them to.  It can also mean that founders spend an inordinate amount of time managing conflict, as employees who are in dispute with one another have nowhere else to turn.

A culture of accepting inappropriate behavior at the top.   In the tech world, there are far too many stories about “demanding” bosses like Steve Jobs who inspired employees to do great things and made wild profits.  Yet a reluctance to confront abusive behavior can have far-reaching consequences. For every successful abrasive leader we hear about there must be a dozen who demoralized everyone around them, caused high-value employees to leave, became the target of expensive lawsuits, and generally spread misery.  We just don’t get to hear about them.  If the founders or key members of the management team can only motivate employees by intimidation or do not know how to give constructive feedback, then there are likely to be problem down the road.  Everyone charged with managing the work of others – especially highly skilled or creative employees – should be trained to do this effectively and respectfully.

Take all of these factors and throw in a reluctance to ask for help.  It takes intelligence and grit to launch a successful start-up.  Unfortunately, there can be a tendency among people who are smart in one or several areas of their life to believe that they are smart in all areas and to falsely assume that they do not need to ask for help.  This is unfortunate.  It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to call for outside help when you recognize that you need it.

Finally, the costs of conflict can be greater for start-ups than for more established organizations.  Conflict among founding partners has caused promising start-ups to fold before it was clear whether they could be successful businesses or not.  Investors are leery of putting their money into dysfunctional organizations.  No one wants to invest in a relationship that is already broken.


Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell is the owner of Principled Dispute Resolution and Consulting. She provides civil mediation for legal disputes, and helps organizational clients manage conflict, create flourishing workplaces and build effective teams. Jeanette holds an Advanced Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution and a PhD in philosophy. Jeanette combines a naturally calm… MORE >

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