The most common reason startups fail is because the founders build something people don’t want. The second most common reason – less well known – is because of disagreement between the founders.
When you start out building a company with one or more partners, everything is exciting. There’s the buzz of the startup, the excitement of the first product launch, the sheer mountain of work that keeps everyone busy with stuff that absolutely has to get done and everyone pitches in to help with almost everything.
And then, as the company grows, other issues come into play. Revenue starts flowing, you discover that the market is not quite buying what you’re selling and you have to pivot. And then, slowly, disagreements about the direction of the company starts becoming an issue; risk-takers want to commit to things that the more risk-averse don’t like, conversations get heated and things start spiraling downwards.
Recently I had to facilitate a conversation between two key players in a client company. Initially, the issue that triggered the conversation had seemed small, but the issue had escalated to the point where there was not only strong disagreement between the two – but relations with clients were becoming fragile. The issue had to be resolved before the relationship between the key players broke down and clients were lost.
I have a fair amount of experience resolving conflicts like this. (I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist – conflict comes with the territory when you run a company.) Sometimes the conflict can be resolved quickly but most of the time a single conversation is not enough – one or both parties are hurt, feel that they aren’t heard and resolution – and healing – takes time.
But there’s one issue that can cause the issue to keep dragging on and get worse.
We all have an inner dialogue. As we think about things we talk to ourselves, processing emotions and acting out scenes of revenge or justice or reconciliation. And as we have these inside-our-heads conversations, we use words to describe our feelings and process our thoughts.
If we’re not careful, these words can really sink the ship.
In the case I started describing above, the trigger was caused by an email that – as well-intentioned as it was – triggered an emotional response in the other person. The receiving party was really hurt by the email and – somewhat justifiably – lashed out in response. Things escalated and eventually I was called in.
As we worked through the issue, I noticed that one of the parties was describing the trigger email using highly emotional words. I was not willing to go and find the original email, analyse it word for word and point out where one or the other party had gone wrong or used incorrect descriptions – that just leads to finger-pointing. But the emotional words were steering things the wrong way.
Emotional words pull the conversation in the wrong direction
We’re human. When we get hurt we lash out or run away. And when we lash out we feel justified in using emotional words to describe our feelings – after all, this is how we feel and we need to be heard, acknowledged and respected.
But when we use emotional words to describe the strength of our feelings we’re not always accurate. The words may describe our feelings accurately, but usually they don’t accurately descibe what caused the issue in the first place.
Because we’re hurt, we “load” the issue with emotional weight. When we use words like “crisis” to describe something that is not really a crisis, we’re adding emotional weight. And that pulls the conversation to one side – instead of trying to resolve the issue the other party is now on the defensive – because they never used the word “crisis” and they are now hurt and need to be acknowledged.
So now we have to sidetrack, defuse the emotional words and steer the conversation back on track. With the additional baggage we just saw created, this becomes more and more difficult.
Emotions are highly time-sensitive
If you ever find yourself in a conflict situation where emotional words are ruling the conversation, about the only thing you can do is walk away, cool down and come back when both parties are less emotional.
If you continue the conversation when both parties are highly emotional chances are that things are going to get worse. But if you cool down you can look at the issue with more perspective and move ahead to resolve it.
When I look back at the business people that I respect the most, there is one characteristic that stands out: they’re all level-headed. They don’t get emotional, bang on the table or raise their voices. They look at the facts, weigh the pros and cons and make a decision based on experience – but not on emotion.
That doesn’t mean they’re not passionate about what they do – they get just as excited or animated as anyone else when they talk about something close to their hearts. But they don’t let their emotions rule their decisions.
When you’re building a business, you have to be passionate. Without that passion you will never get through the down times. But maintaining a cool head – not letting your emotions rule your decisions – is the key to making well-considered decisions.
Never send an email when you’re angry
Years ago my friend Tim described it to me like this:
When you send an email while you’re angry, you will still be angry. And the person receiving the email is probably angry as well. However, if you go and talk to that person rather than sending the email, there is at least a chance that you can resolve the situation.
An email is a conversation without a listener. There is no opportunity to discuss, clarify or acknowledge – an angry email creates anger without the opportunity for resolution.
I’ve written angry emails – and learnt the hard way to never, ever put an address in the “to” or “cc” fields. And then leave it until tomorrow when I’ve cooled down and can delete it.
Building a business is an emotional thing
We get into building a business because we feel passionate about something – and that passion is a critical part of the eventual success. As you build your business there will be times when tempers flare and conversations get emotional. That’s just life.
But we all need to recognize when our emotions color a situation to the extent that we’re clouding our judgment. Sometimes you need to walk away, cool down and come back again – other times you can break through the emotions and resolve the situation immediately.
But recognize that we’re all human, we all get emotional and learn to cope with it. Your chances of success will be that much higher.