At a startup, it can be hard to avoid conflict: hours are long, space and money are usually tight, and people are opinionated. Maybe you can’t avoid them entirely, but you can certainly be prepared to deal with them gracefully.
To find out how, we asked 11 entrepreneurs from the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) the following question:
What are the most common conflicts (name only one) that you have seen arise between employees at startups? And how do you resolve them quickly?
1. Delegating Responsibility for Tasks
In the quick pace of a startup environment, it’s easy to throw out projects without clarifying who is responsible. This becomes a conflict when two employees are doing the same task or no one thinks they’re responsible.
It’s honestly a leadership problem and has to start by delegating responsibility at every meeting and in every email. When conflicts come up, start by acknowledging that the communication was unclear and specifying who should be working on the project moving forward. You may need to smooth ruffled feathers, but in time, clearly designating who is managing projects will minimize these conflicts and confusion.
2. Deciding Where to Go
Because things change so quickly in the startup environment, it’s common to see disagreements around where the startup is headed. This goal underlies all the work team members are doing. If there isn’t a consensus around the common goal, this can lead to real conflict.
The simple solution to this source of conflict is for the founder to have a very clear company vision and articulate it to all members of the team. Keep reinforcing or redefining if and when company direction may change.
3. Implementing the 80/20 Rule
You have to resist the urge for your employees to agree with you 100 percent of the time and to design products and produce work that is 100 percent in line with your expectations. By and large, I won’t fuss about something or push for massive revisions when something is somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of how I’d hoped it would be.
4. Dealing With Turf Wars
Smaller businesses tend to attract take-charge types who like to try new things, and roles within a startup often overlap by necessity. When that tension escalates to an all-out turf war, it can destroy your business from the inside.
The source and the solution in this conflict lead back to you as the boss. You haven’t made it clear enough who is responsible for what and who has decision-making authority in which situations. Resolve these sorts of conflicts quickly before people start wasting lots of time jockeying for power instead of doing their real jobs. Prevent major systemic problems from developing by revisiting the org chart and updating job descriptions every quarter or so.
5. Defining the Priorities
This happens in many companies, but it may be more evident in a startup culture. A disagreement about what the priorities are often signifies a department versus department dispute. Depending on the background of each one of these employees, someone may feel like his or her area or project should take precedence over another. The best way to resolve these disputes quickly is to take the United Nations approach and have both parties come up with a solution from which they can both benefit.
—Fabian Kaempfer, Chocomize
6. Managing Time
Within a startup environment, you encounter a variety of employees with varying degrees of time management skills. On one end of the spectrum, you have employees who will work through the night to complete a task that isn’t due for days, while other employees methodically take the full amount of time to fulfill the task.
The two types of employees working on the same project can become conflicted and resentful of each other. Good project management can help curb the tension by understanding the employees’ approaches to tasks and assigning them accordingly, as well as clearly outlining the time expectations for these tasks.
7. Struggling With Power
Most early-stage companies lack the reporting hierarchy that would otherwise maintain order in larger firms. Young, ambitious employees often find themselves tangled in power struggles as they try to determine who is boss. Founders need to get things under control by swiftly instituting an org chart and clearly communicating the reporting structure and job descriptions. Subsequently, it is important for founders to empower in-place leaders by channeling communication and leadership responsibilities to those in charge. The entire organization is guaranteed to watch and test the new pecking order and will follow the founder’s lead.
8. Making User Interface Decisions
Dealing with user experience and user interface decisions is difficult. Luckily, there is a surefire way to resolve these quickly and objectively. We A/B test everything and make the decision a data-driven one. This helps take egos out of the equation and reminds everyone that there is not “my solution” and “your solution,” but rather there is just “the best solution,” which is the one we are all after.
9. Clarifying Responsibilities
Startup team members always wear multiple hats and take on multiple roles. Inevitably, there will be confusion about responsibilities and ownership of certain tasks or departments. The CEO or founder must establish clear team responsibilities to avoid this morale-damaging confusion. Give team members one area that is solely their “baby,” and allow their other responsibilities to be shared.
10. Handling Cultural Mismatches
People sometimes aren’t a great fit for the culture of the office or their work group, and when that happens, a change needs to be made. If they’re not a cultural fit, and they’re underperforming, it’s easy to let that person go.
If only one of those is true, it may be worth exploring other roles within a company because maybe they’re in the wrong spot. A different situation may show if that person can fit the dynamic and demonstrate that they can collaborate well with others. If a person is a high performer but clearly not a cultural fit, that’s a big conflict. Ultimately, you may need to let that person go because you risk that person driving other people away.
11. Fixing Alignment Problems
The biggest conflict I have observed between employees at startups is misalignment in terms of how the team sets tangible strategy and goals to implement their vision and how they will work together in order to best accomplish those goals. Rules of engagement are critical early on so leaders can drive clarity and alignment throughout the organization during the early years when there tends to be a distinct lack of structure and process to guide organization.
—Chris Cancialosi, gothamCulture