Conflict resolution 101 for startups

by Steli Efti

“Fights between founders are surprisingly common. About 20% of the startups we've funded have had a founder leave.”—Paul Graham, The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups

Running a startup is hard. All the enthusiasm you bring into it when you begin can turn into frustration when things don’t work out as planned. And they almost never work out as planned.

It’s easy to start blaming other members of your team or your co-founders. Resentment starts to rear its ugly head. And before you know it, you loath to see the faces of your co-founders and team members.

Startups are high pressure environments

Working long hours with few resources. Uncertain outcomes.

Conflict is unavoidable. You’re building something. Creating something from nothing. There will be friction.

It’s how you deal with it that matters.

Ignore it? Ticking time bomb.

Fight it out? That can escalate, rather than resolve the conflict and damage the relationship with your team members.

Here’s a simple but powerful method to resolve conflicts and keep the entire team morale up during times when everything goes down badly. 

Conflict resolution step-by-step

#1. The Trigger

Someone irritates or frustrates you, makes you feel angry, upset, disappointed or hurt.

#2. Relax

Calm down. Let your emotions cool down for a second.

Usually, when the bad feelings subside people tend to brush over it. “I’m not that angry anymore, so let’s not talk about it.” That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Because this is the perfect time to talk about it. It’s still fresh on your mind and you remember it clearly, but not so fresh that you’re caught up in anger.

#3. Feel good

Put yourself in a positive emotional state.

#4. Initiate a conversation

Take that person aside and say: "Hey, I want to talk to you about something important for a minute. Can we do this now?"

#5. State the facts

Objectively describe the situation that caused you to feel bad. Be neutral and detached when you explain exactly what happened.

"Look, yesterday you said in front of the whole team, 'Oh yeah, we should totally let our sales guy design the interface, and later I’ll ask my hairstylist to do a root-canal treatment for me.'”

You objectively stated the facts and kept your own interpretation out of it.

#6. Express your feelings

Now you describe how that made you feel. Do this in a non-accusatory way. The goal is to clean the situation up, not to battle this out. Tempt them to explain themselves, not to defend themselves.

“I felt really belittled by that. I felt bad and humiliated in front of the others. I felt like you diminished my input and made me look stupid.”

You’ve described your subjective experience. And being so open about your emotions is disarming. It lowers their guard, which helps to clear the conflict quicker.

#7. Show them you value them

Before they respond, put it on top of their mind that this is not about winning or being right. This is about maintaining a good working relationship together.

“I really value you and enjoy working with you. That’s why I bring this up—I don’t want anything to stand between us. I want to talk this out with you so there are no hard feelings left. So I wanted to give you a chance to tell me how you saw the situation, and let’s clear this thing up.”

You’ve invited them to resolve this conflict with you in a positive way and lowered their defenses.

#8. Listen

There are three kinds of responses you get. The most common response will be:

1. Sorry!

“Oh shit, sorry for that! That wasn’t my intention at all. I just said that because we were all stressed out and tense. I was just trying to loosen things up with a little laughter. I didn’t realize it made you feel like that, I didn’t mean to ridicule you at all. I’m super sorry pal!”

When you know the person didn’t mean it that way, it takes the emotion out of it. You also understand the other person better and get why s/he’s making that joke. And s/he’s understanding you better too and has more awareness of how this kind of joke makes others feel.

2. You had that coming!

“You know what? I’m glad you're saying this! Because I kind of felt like you’re a douchebag. I made that joke because I was really pissed at you at that moment. You missed the deadline five times in a row and that morning I just was fucking frustrated. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said it in a joke, but it just came out that way, I don’t want you to feel like that, but I felt so upset about it.

Now you realize this isn’t just about a stupid joke. There’s an actual underlying conflict. You have done something to upset the other person as well. Give them the chance to explain what caused it and what made them feel negative towards you so that it came out in this kind of passive aggressive way. Now you have a chance to talk about the real issue and resolve that rather than haggling about a stupid joke.

3. You felt stupid because you are stupid!

“Yeah, I said that to put you in your place. I’m glad your slow-mo brain is finally getting the message.”

Now you know you’re dealing with a real idiot. Just walk away. Don’t waste your energy trying to build a relationship with them. This almost never happens. Hopefully you are selective enough about choosing the people you surround yourself with to never get into this situation. If you do, file it under lessons learned’.

#9. Shake hands

When you cleared this thing up, shake hands. Celebrate that you’ve resolved this conflict together. You’ll often find that the other person is grateful you brought this whole thing up.

No conflict is too small

Do this with tiny conflicts too. In fact, the tinier the conflict, the better. Practice dealing with small conflicts so that you’re better prepared for more serious ones.

Avoid the kind of situation where you become so emotionally charged that you’re caught up in your own interpretations and escalate a conflict like this:

You: “You made a stupid joke about me. In fact, you always make stupid jokes, and you know why? Because you’re a stupid asshole!”

Other person: “What the fuck is wrong with you? If you don’t have any sense of humor and have zero self-confidence, that’s your fucking problem, not mine.”

Cause once you’re at that point, things are a lot harder to resolve.

Don’t pretend conflict isn’t there

Most people prefer to avoid or ignore conflict. Because it’s unpleasant. Because it’s scary. Because they don’t know how to turn conflicts into opportunities.

If you evade an issue, the negative emotions will keep simmering inside. These emotions will find a way to resurface in one of these two ways:

  • The "Suppress it and it comes out somewhere else" syndrome
    This causes a metastatic growth of petty conflicts. Engaging in these trivial arguments is pointless and destructive if you don’t address the real issue. Sometimes the other person isn’t even aware of the underlying concern, and it’s important to probe deep enough to unearth what’s really bothering them.

  • Clique building
    One person starts bad-mouthing the other behind their back to build an alliance against that person. Teamwork turns into politics, and from there on it’s a downward spiral.

That’s why it’s important to sort things out as soon as possible. Don’t let conflicts spread and grow.

Use conflict constructively

Resolving conflicts can be a strong bonding experience, because it unites your team. You’ve faced and overcame a challenge together. You’ve fostered a better understanding between your team members. You don’t just solve a problem, but you enhance the communication in your startup, which is one of the most important things you can do when building a company.