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Conflict Systems at Work in Startups

Behind most disputes is a system that perpetuates the problem. Uncovering the system will reveal why these negative conflict outcomes keep coming back, and, hopefully, how to fix them for good.

Have you ever been on a business team where the same issues seem to arise time and time again? Maybe you thought you had dealt with a problem through training, shuffling the team, dismissing a person who was obviously at the center of the issue, or simply waiting for it to take care of itself, only to see something similar rear its head a few weeks, months, or even years later. More than likely, something is going on that is not only causing the problem to recur but also is not easily seen by the team. So, the challenge is to get to the root of the problem.

Common Systemic Issues Leading to Disputes in Startups

Following is a list of very common systems that can lead to conflicts, particularly in high potential startups. Much of this information was researched and put together by Professor Noam Wasserman at the Harvard Business School. Also included is information from my work as a mediator with startup teams, helping teams understand how to end their repetitive destructive conflicts once and for all. The list is in no particular order of priority.

  • Decision-Making Power is Ill-defined
  • Relationships and Choosing Partner Complexities
  • Role Definition and Lack of Clarity
  • Reward Definition – Equity Splits and Cash Compensation
  • Cultural Gaps and Mismatching
  • Conflict Styles Mismatch as a Natural Phenomenon
  • Investor Relations and Control Dynamics
  • ‘Who Works Hardest?’ Questions
  • Hiring Decisions
  • Founder Motivations – Wealth vs. Control
  • Extreme Pressure and Varying Abilities to Work Effectively Under Pressure

A huge amount of thought, research, time and effort went into building the list, and volumes have been written to support every point. However, the most powerful aspect of the list is that it actually exists. It is normal and predictable that any of these systems may lead to conflicts in your company. Knowing that others share similar challenges may help normalize what is happening on your team. What may be perceived as a problem with one person, vendor, investor, product, or department can take on a new light with this new information. Simply knowing that a system may be in play allows the team to look for it, identify it and deal with it rather than continue to be confused, angry, in avoidance, or just plain unable to act.

Two Elements that Enable System Issues to Escalate Into Disputes

Lack of Awareness of Systemic Issues

Complexities in human interactions often add to the confusion when trying to identify exactly what underlying issues are causing problems. Not properly identifying the underlying cause makes it very difficult to solve the problem in the long term. As the conflict grows and manifests itself in more and more of the team dynamics, the system becomes harder and harder to recognize and act upon. Common predictable behaviors like in-group/out-group forming, singling out individuals for blame, and increasing attrition, to name a few, start to forecast bigger troubles ahead. Short-term fixes may mask the issue and cover the symptoms for a while, but in most cases the problems will resurface with vigor.

Conflict Avoidance

Relationship management and avoiding conflict will often trump the need to deal with a growing conflict and find the system behind it. “Co-founders with prior social relationships are often the least likely to deal with the elephants in the room.”(Wasserman) and “Partners with prior business relations and strangers working together are more likely to address rising conflicts than family/friends.” (Wasserman) One of our key human cooperation attributes is being able to look the other way and not let small conflicts and offenses spiral into bigger ones. This same behavior can also bite us in the rear when we allow small conflicts to fester and turn into bigger ones.

Finding the System

A curious team will ideally catch warning signs early and come together to both identify what is underlying their conflict and take appropriate steps to eliminate or change the system causing the problem. Such a team has consistently strong leadership and open, trusting, forward-looking communication among most members. They are able to see the team’s underlying foundation, identify what is happening, and quickly act to change it.

Teams that have been in the weeds of conflict for a long time, or have less experienced people, will need a more process-oriented way of discovering the system. Conflict mapping, where a qualified insider or outsider investigates and develops a “map” of what is happening, is a common first step to a solution. Bringing that information to the team in a way that it can be heard, adjusted as needed, and then brought to an agreed upon action is a natural second step.

Actions to Take

If you walk away with nothing else from this post, remember that when you spot a conflict that is escalating:

Be proactive.
Remain curious at all times.
Recognize that a conflict-causing system could be at play in your team.
Identify that system.
Take action to change the situation.

Until next time, take good care out there!


Mark Batson Baril

Mark Baril is a mediator with extensive business, personnel, and manufacturing experience. Mark focuses on managing conflict in businesses so they can thrive. He understands the inner workings and complexities of startups, and established businesses, and has a passion for helping them move from the complexity and costliness of destructive… MORE >

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