So far, we've addressed the importance of basic self-awareness and communication skills. If you've begun to explore these, you're already way ahead of most founders, not to mention humans. But what happens when things go wrong - which they inevitably will? What happens when the communication breaks down, emotions run high, difficult unexpected circumstances arise, money gets tight or disappears, stress gets overwhelming, and you just can't seem to agree on anything anymore? While cofounder conflict is inevitable, "successful co-founders actually embrace conflict," as Garry Tan of Initialized Capital phrased it in his recent Techcrunch article on this very subject. But how to do that?
While there are many aspects to address here such as work-life balance, emotional stability, and planning ahead for the unexpected, (we'll get to those eventually,) one particularly helpful tip we can provide is how to "fight fair": how to manage conflict in an effective way.
I. First, some basic education about conflict:
Stress from conflict is one of the greatest causes of disease. Seriously.
Avoiding conflict leads to greater conflict.
Conflicts are inevitable and can be utilized as motivators for creating positive change if handled well.
So how to handle the conflict well? Well, cofounder counseling for one. But beyond that, here are just a few pieces of advice to get you started.
II. Conflict Prevention:
Have resources available in advance - meaning, when things are going well - such as a coach or consultant, emergency fund, therapist, etc.
Establish boundaries early on, including role definitions, who is charge of what, etc.
Hold regular structured meetings to recognize, discuss, and preempt problem areas.
In an unexpected crisis, focus on your commitment to the success of the partnership while navigating it rather than attacking each other.
Get expert help soon.
Do not discuss issues while in an emotionally agitated state. (Easier said than done. Two words: "Time. Out.")
Have an action plan in place for who makes the final decision in case there is unresolvable fundamental disagreement.
After doing all you can to prevent major conflicts, just know that they will still occur from time to time. That's just the nature of relationships. So, what then?
III. Conflict Management:
Recognize and acknowledge verbally that the topic is getting heated, and that emotions are probably involved.
Take breaks as necessary to ensure you are not discussing anything while emotionally flooded.
Write out your thoughts in advance if you have difficulty expressing yourself in a controlled, concise manner when things get heated.
Once you have both stated your position and feel fully heard (see our post on communication to ensure this takes place,) try to figure out what the underlying goal is for each of you, and attend to that. For example, my partner may want to hire a particular service for the company while I do not. In all likelihood, my underlying goal involves saving money, as well as perhaps avoiding making a mistake - both of which probably stem from fear. My partner's goal might be to grow the company in a particular way or relieve some of the pressure they feel by outsourcing a service. Once we have established these underlying goals, the particulars of this conflict can be addressed more clearly: how can we attain both of our goals, even if we don't necessarily achieve the outcome we had originally envisioned? Perhaps we can save money in other ways so I feel better about hiring the service? Perhaps we can grow the company or relieve pressure in other ways so my partner feels better about not hiring this particular service? Either way, the point becomes about meeting the actual underlying needs we both have, rather than the nitty-gritty particulars of this one issue.
Always keep in mind that the success of the partnership itself transcends the outcome of this conflict. This awareness will affect the way you speak and listen to one another.
There is a lot more to say here, obviously. So many hours have been put into perfecting the art of conflict management, and in the end, your version of fighting fair will depend mostly on your particular personalities and how they intertwine. And, if your cofounders are not on board to work on things immediately, start with your own behaviors. As Mike Knoop of Zapier put it so eloquently way back in a 2013 article on resolving cofounder disputes, "I realize that I cannot control other founders and I can never eliminate disputes, but I can impact the company positively through my own behavior and decisions." Amen to that.