An inside fight: how to argue with a cofounder and save the startup from disaster
Conflict between co-founders? Does this often end badly for startups? Marta Borkowska from Mangrove tells us how to deal with this problem.
Translation: Laura Kszczanowicz | Infoshare
Disputes between founders can ruin a business for good. Not an interesting prospect. Is there anything worse than conflict? Yes, avoiding it. Many founders cannot stand disagreement, discomfort and negative feedback. The "honeymoon" phase provides some protection, at least temporarily, especially if the company has obtained financing. When the honeymoon ends, what matters is resilience, caution in communication, and attentiveness to the other person - competencies that help maintain a healthy relationship in circumstances where conflict is frequent. The good news is that it can be learned.
Conflict between co-founders may have many reasons and, therefore, several types of solutions.
1. Substantive conflict – who is right?
The substantive conflict sounds serious, but it is actually the easiest to resolve. Co-founders face a decision, but each of them has a different idea for change, taking advantage of an opportunity or avoiding risk. If you are in such a conflict, the first step is to ask: are we arguing about something that is actually important to the company? If not, don't waste your time and resources because there are usually not enough of them anyway. If so, read on.
What could happen here?
- One side is right, and the other is wrong — this can happen when the situation is not entirely new to you. When you've been through something similar before, preferably more than once. That is, you have enough data from the past that can help you make assumptions about the present and the past. Step one is to make sure this is the case. If you think you are right, find and show the arguments to the co-founder. Support your opinion. If compelling data is in the hands of your co-founder, don't try to win. Accept that you too are wrong sometimes. And then, honestly, say thank you and be happy that the co-founder was right. This means that you complement each other well in this business and can manage it together — which is what you decided to do.
- Both sides are right — yes, it is possible when a situation has more than one good solution. Establish common criteria that will guide you (now and in the future) when making similar decisions. This may be, for example, implementation time or cost. For startups, especially in today's market, “fast” or “cheap” is quite a common choice.
- Both sides are (probably) wrong — sometimes the arguments and data you have are not enough. You cannot firmly say "this is the solution!". What now? Ask for help. You will find mentors and experts on the market. There is a good chance that there are people among them who know how to solve it. And if there is no 100% good solution, choose the one with the least risk. This is where the criteria to help you pick the “best bad scenario” come in handy again.
What to watch out for: A substantive conflict can turn into a power conflict. Founders are people who like power, there is nothing strange or wrong with that. If you start to feel the need to win the argument, that's not good. This is your team, you have to win together. Be mindful of your intentions and behaviours.
2. Conflict of values - “I agree, BUT...”
The conflict of values often disguises itself as a substantive conflict. How to spot the difference? Let's assume you are presenting data and arguments. The other party listens, nods and says:
- “Yes, but that's not what we're talking about…”
- “Yes, but that's not what I mean…”
- “Yes but…”
So it agrees with the content. Excellent! What then does he disagree with? These may just be values. The second sign is a lot of emotions. Often it is anger or even anger. If you have catastrophic visions, a lot of tension and anxiety, there is a good chance that you are in the middle of such a conflict.
What to do?
- Stop. Stop talking, try to stop thinking.
- Ask yourself: what do I really want? What bothers me? Which of my values are being violated right now? Be mindful of different responses related to both effectiveness and ethics.
- Try to identify and understand the other party's values. Communicate: “Listen, I think this conflict is about something different than we think. Tell me more about your values and the principles that guide you in such situations.”
- Look at this information from a distance and see if your core values are aligned. If so, you only need to think about how to implement them. And this brings us to the substantive conflict, see point 1.
- If your values are different, negotiate. It may take some time, but once you do it, you will have developed principles for the future. Sometimes it is worth asking a mediator for help.
- Don't ignore this situation. If left unattended, the conflict of values grows and sinks companies.
Finally, a difficult but possible situation. The lack of shared values is a sign that you should not start a business together. Then the best decision is to develop an exit plan.
3. Personal conflict – when you feel like you are in a relationship
The third type of conflict is easier to spot in yourself than in another person's behaviour. You may sense that you are in the middle of a personal conflict, but you don't know whether the other party sees it the same way.
Personal conflict makes you feel bad. There is sadness, anger and disappointment, sometimes tears. This type most closely resembles an argument with a partner - not a business one, but a romantic one.
Why do these conflicts occur?
A sense of loss — of influence, reputation, expertise. Someone makes decisions (sometimes, shockingly, better ones) that we previously made ourselves, has more and more power, and becomes a threat to the ego. How to live? If the actions will benefit the company, let it go. Consciously control your ego for the good of the company. No one else will do it for you, and this is really the right direction.
Feeling that the co-founder isn't doing or committing as much as you are — or taking less responsibility. If it's about you, provide feedback ASAP. Important: you provide feedback on the conflict, i.e. behaviour, and do not criticize the person. Facts, data, and examples of specific situations will help. Don't put it off because every day you delay is feeding the monster. Eventually, it will come out of the closet and swallow your business whole. Remember to be open to the other side's perspective and try to end the confrontation with some agreements.
Building relationships between co-founders is one of the foundations of a startup's development, we know this at Mangrove because we support founders on a daily basis in various complicated or crisis. The main difficulty in building relationships? You have to do it really well. But not necessarily from the first day :)
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