"Fail Early, Fail Fast" also applies to conflict at startups

Posted by Sean O'Shaughnessey on Apr 27, 2020 11:06:23 AM
Sean O'Shaughnessey
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It is not uncommon for internal startups to have emotionally charged meetings. Many stresses occur with a startup. Not only are you creating something from scratch, but you are likely doing it without enough resources and with massive amounts of pressure to make deadlines that any mortal human would agree is impossible. All of this combines to increase stress and create a pressure cooker for emotions.


It should be obvious that getting into heated arguments is not productive. I am not saying that your co-workers cannot disagree, but becoming too passionate can lead to problems. Constant arguing can result in:

  • Poor internal alignment of goals
  • Unnecessarily wasting time and energy
  • Misdirected work and effort
  • A siloing of teams

First, why is this your problem?

Internal conflict is a problem for you to solve simply because you probably understand how to influence others better than anyone else on your leadership team. Let’s face it, your job for your entire sales career has been to influence the decision-making process of others. This is what salespeople and sales leaders do. More importantly, this is what you do. So now you need to do it internally in your company. You have always known that selling internally is just as crucial as selling externally.

Second, what can you try?

The internal conflict in your startup is your problem to solve simply because you can solve the problem. Here are six ideas to help you get through this and create a culture that can minimize these impacts.


Have a positive attitude at all times

The first step of this process is to take care of yourself. If you are going to help others to not blow up in a meeting, you need to make sure that you aren’t part of the problem. That means you need to have a positive attitude.

Positivity can sometimes be challenging. As I described above, your company is in a pressure cooker. However, being a professional salesperson, you have been there before. You have lived your entire sales career with the challenges of a quota that was always too high. You have dealt with the end of the quarter where every deal is critical.

Deadlines and stressful situations are simply part of the job as a salesperson, but in every sales call, you have always had a smile on your face and a happy disposition. You knew that if you didn’t close that deal, you might not have the cash for your kids’ braces, and you know that the furnace needs replaced, but you cannot let them see you sweat.

This skill is vital in helping your startup colleagues get through the stress of creating something great. You need to be the calm one in the room. You know your prospects need to see you always under control, and your co-workers now need that calming presence.


Manage your internal stress

You have probably developed some techniques for managing stress as a professional salesperson and sales leader. You need to ramp up those efforts. If you were doing something a couple of times per week that reduces your stress, you might want to start doing it daily or perhaps multiple times per day.

If you don’t have good habits to eliminate stress, here are a few of my favorites:

  • Laugh, even if it’s forced
  • Meditate for 10 minutes
  • Give someone a big bear hug
  • Look through happy photos
  • Physical contact with your loved ones
  • Create a “gratitude sandwich”
  • Get 8-10 hours of sleep
  • Go for a 10-minute walk in the middle of the day
  • Hang out with your pet
  • Eat responsibly and increase your portions of fruits and vegetables
  • Mentally go to your happy place
  • Try deep breathing
  • Waste time a little
  • Watch a funny video
  • Listen to music
  • Take a moment to gaze out of the window (especially if you cannot get outside)
  • Write yourself a positive message and tape it to your monitor. “I am the best [insert what you do]”
  • Take one thing at a time.

I like to do several items in the above list, but you need to do what works for you. In times of stress within your company, increase that activity.


Choose words wisely

What you say during a conflict is very important. The adage “think before you speak” is incredibly good advice. For you, as the person trying to calm down the frustration in the group, you must always appear calm. Your words must be pure and neutral.

The easiest way to do this is to count to five before you speak. This pause allows you to consider your words and think about their ramifications. It will enable you to anticipate the reaction among your peers. If the mood of the meeting has escalated too much, you may wish to count to ten.

The hardest part is encouraging others also to pause. If the situation is starting to boil over, then I suggest you (or some moderator) to stop the conversation. Encourage each person to take a deep breath, count to five or ten, then calmly make their statement. Then you pause the group again, and another person can have the floor after they take a deep breath and do the count.

An effective mechanism for pausing the conversation if everyone is in one room is to have each person make their points as written statements on a whiteboard. By slowing down long enough to write words down, the tension in the room will decrease.

Pausing is a great tool. It allows our minds to synchronize with our mouths and gives everyone time to contemplate the goal of the statements.

As a sales leader, you know that using pauses in your conversation can allow you to influence the decision-making process of your prospects. Now you are using the same technique to influence the decision-making process of your peers.


Be aware of nonverbal communication

You probably already do this as a professional salesperson, but now I suggest you do it in internal meetings. More importantly, you need to address the situation if the nonverbal communication is negative.

In a sales call, you know that if a prospect is asking questions and smiling or nodding their head, then you (or maybe your salesperson that you are mentoring) are getting the message across. Head nodding is an example of positive nonverbal communication.

However, you also know that when the prospect has arms crossed and eyebrows furrowed, you potentially are not getting through. In a sales meeting, you may notice this clue and mentally note that you need to address this person in the near future. You may choose not to confront the skeptic in front of others, but you know that you have work to do.

The same is true in your internal meetings. Maybe, due to your familiarity with the person, you know that you can encourage a skeptic to talk. However, it may make sense to do a quick hallway chat with the skeptic after the meeting to get her to open up to you about concerns. For example, I was on a recent video conf call (who isn’t these days) and noticed that people started talking over each other with lots of hand gestures. The compounded movements to the noise were debilitating.

Let’s be honest. People rarely get overly heated if they think their opinions are being appropriately considered and discussed. A person that has bottled up negative feelings is more likely to explode in the future. So you need to deal with the person that isn’t talking and try to get them to engage. You need to constructively resolve their conflict, which leads us to the next item.


Constructively resolve

If everyone agrees, then you don’t need to have meetings. Conflict is critical to coming up with the best solution. What you are trying to reduce is the conflicts that can injure relationships or create negative energy.

The more conflict that you have among your co-workers, the more crucial it is to diagnose that conflict. Are your co-workers arguing about something that doesn’t matter? This can happen when opinions are repeatedly ignored over time. Eventually, every minor issue can become a massive argument. This degradation of accommodation is unhealthy.

My best advice on this issue comes from a book that I read many years ago: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways To Keep The Little Things From Taking Over Your Life” It is possible that you can simply read that title and know everything in the book. However, I do suggest that you read it. The fundamental trick is to move yourself one year into the future mentally. Is this issue that is getting everyone upset going to matter in a year? If not, then it isn’t worth getting into a fight about it.

What issues for a startup are not small stuff? If the problem means that your company will not be around in one year or if your revenue stream will be drastically different in one year, then that is not small stuff. Save your most challenging conversations for those situations. For all other conditions, you need to be the mediator and calm everyone down.

Part of the calming process needs to be the mutual understanding that this is not a life-or-death of the company situation. If the outcome is not going to affect the health of the company materially, then it is not worth the increased stress. Once you have reduced the stress level, you can forgive and peacefully resolve the conflict.


Forgive and peacefully end the conflict

Ending the conflict has to be the ultimate goal. Some people will say “agree to disagree,” but that is simply not enough. A small company needs to “agree to disagree, but wholeheartedly trust the decision of the group and positively move forward.”

This situation is where your skills as a sales leader are the most valuable. You are now in a negotiation. As a sales leader, you are probably an excellent negotiator. You need to negotiate a reasonable compromise and to the situation.

I cannot tell you how to negotiate every conflict between the two positions in this article. Just like I cannot tell you how to negotiate every price, performance, delivery, or payment terms situation that you address with your customers. You will have to navigate that yourself. However, there are some solid tips that I can suggest:

Restate and identify the critical points of both parties. Don’t ask the individuals to do the restating, but rather have someone that doesn’t have a stake in the argument to restate both sides. Obviously, get concurrence that the restating is accurate, but don’t let the partisan person state the position - the impartial person must say the last statement.

Ask each side what one item is the most essential point that cannot be compromised, but then ask them to name one thing that can be dropped.

Ask the other party if giving up that one thing allows them to agree and what one new thing they can give up now that the other party has given up something.

Slowly whittle down the pile going back and forth. You may have to coach both sides to break up that one non-negotiable item into multiple things so that there more opportunities for compromise.

In the end, you want to allow enough conflict in your internal meetings to create better solutions to problems. However, you need to channel that conflict into growing your young company rather than tearing it down. As a sales leader, you’re uniquely qualified to deal with stressful situations and to negotiate compromises. You have always known that selling internally is almost as important as selling externally, and now that you are in a startup, you will need to continue this process.

Topics: Startup, Sales, Business Development