Conflict management hacks for startups, entrepreneurs and the like

Dora Orlosy

February 3, 2021

Why does it matter?

How could it be that my co-founder / my partner / my CTO / CMO / COO, with whom I launched this company back in the days and got along so well, would turn 180 degree now and behave in a way that seems to be an outright nonsense? When just a few weeks, or rather a few days ago everything was all right. What happened to them, who has always been a person of good sense!


How can someone work like this? I’ve asked this so many times and they are still not doing it! For how long am I supposed to beg them?”

Do these questions sound familiar to you? If yes, then read on to find out what to do in such cases. If no, read on the same way, as sooner or later you’ll surely face some kind of similar conflict situation in your work. Clashes of views stay with us inevitably, so instead of avoiding them at any cost or acting them out, it is much wiser to address them properly. Working together is not easy, especially when you are under stress and pressure. Which means basically all the time.

If you want to build a company, you have to build a team too. Though you can have an idea about many things, there’s no chance that you are good at everything. Therefore you’ll need other people on board to perform well in different areas. This holds true for technological firms as well, because even though robots and algorithms take on more and more tasks, hardcore strategic decisions still await flesh and blood real leaders. And to lead the team successfully you’ll have to resolve successfully people’s issues and conflicts too.

As a leader you set the tone. Your leadership style and overall behavior has an enormous impact on how people in your company will behave and communicate with each other and with other stakeholders too. Your everyday examples of resolving a conflict, raising an issue, giving feedback and so forth shape much of what your company culture is getting to be. Build your culture, shape your communication consciously and grow your community from the very start!

Where do conflicts come from?

In a relationship that lasts longer than a day, it is absolutely part of the game that dissents pop up. They just emerge out of the differences in personality, communication style, attitudes, interests, opinions, past experiences. However these initial tiny bits of differences can rapidly grow bigger and can easily get projected into further territories as well, where normally peace and calmness would prevail. After a certain amount of overflow of emotions, there’s no stopping any longer: you get into fight even over the most irrelevant things, you might have seemingly unmotivated anger bursts or your communication style might suddenly turn to be all but aggressive or contrarily, irritatingly over-rationalizing. At this point you may reasonably and rightly ask: Is there a way out of this at all? Or would it better to part our ways as soon as possible?

The context for such desperate questions could be a marriage, a workplace scene between colleagues, a discussion between best friends or family members or anywhere else between people who work closely with others.

What happens in a conflict?

When collaboration becomes hindered in multiple ways, usually the relationship too gets injured to some extent.

Initially, open communication remains fair between the parties, though starting to become somewhat detached. Meanwhile unspoken words get accumulated deep down at the back of the minds. The invisible part of the psychological iceberg, the attitudes, emotions, values, needs, wishes, self-respect are all coming into action and demand more and more space and attention for themselves. Struggling to cope with the unfolding complexity of your personal drama, you start relying on what seems to be still solid and longstanding: the good old stereotypes, perhaps fortified by some prejudices too, may offer a much desired loophole.

Later on, when things get escalated, you are not able to speak authentically about your true feelings and thoughts any longer, because they have grown to be completely unacceptable and unspeakable by now. A seemingly insuperable gap has been erected between you and your counterpart. As a result, you need some quick and effective replacement, for which you are ready to pay even a high price: your self expression gets distorted and your previously direct and transparent communication is giving way to intricate games. You either over-emphasize rational thinking, restricting all of what you have to say to mere facts and numbers, or over-react emotionally whatever surrounds you. Either way leads both of you merely to remain stuck in an ugly stalemate.


How to combat dead ends?

So here below you can find some tips and practices for how to resolve conflicts. You can take them away and begin implementing today. Don’t be discouraged if something does not come through for the first time. Stop for a second, observe what has happened and try once again, now a little bit differently!

5 hacks to handle conflicts in a startup

Hack #1                 Not so fast!

You don’t have to start right away with breaking up upon the first difficulty within the relationship. Long term bonds form along big storms. After all, even if you choose to step forward quickly from one relationship full of conflicts and don’t even look back, there’s a fair chance that another similar one is waiting you at the next corner, which will also cry for some kind of resolution within a short while. So why not learn the mastery now as you are in the middle of a „perfect” mess and enjoy the benefits of learning on the long term?

Hack #2                Be honest to yourself and don’t be afraid of looking into the mirror!

Let’s start with the bad news to get over it quickly: if you aim to break out from an ever more toxic environment of constant conflict, you need to step out from your safe comfort zone! Get familiar with the hidden layers of your own iceberg, and get ready to face both nice and not so nice things too! The good news is that if you get through this, you’ll have far better chances to find constructive arrangement solutions for fixing the nagging problem.  

There’s much at stake about timing: the sooner you become aware of the emergence of a conflict situation, and your subsequent hidden assumptions, emotions and thoughts related to it, the better the chances are that you can come up with constructive responses. Until your relationship blows up entirely, you always have some room left for clarification with your partner.

Hack #3                Be aware of your boundaries!

You need to know where your boundaries lie and how flexible they can be. How far can you move before you start feeling unbearable self-sacrifice. Or how willing are you to experiment with trying out new things that perhaps you have never tried before? Approach your problem as a unique opportunity for self-reflection and personal development. Use the tormenting conflict to look at yourself like you’ve never had the chance to do in normal life. For example my own most recent discovery about myself is that I have to pay much attention to my needs of independence in organizing work priorities. Now that I am aware of it, I can communicate it to others when it is necessary.

Hack #4                Act before it is too late!

Once you have become aware of the „maze” you got into, start using the simple techniques of "Clean Language": active listening, direct communication and clear questions. The goal is to reach shared understanding and focus.  

Use these questions and self-statements for difficult conversations:

o  Here is how I feel.

o  Here is what I need.

o  What do you need?

o  What would you like to have happen?

o  What obstacles stand in our way?

o  What options do we have? What else?

You can use one or two or a couple of these questions, you can combine them in the way it seems the most appropriate to you, or you can decide which one should come first, second, or third. The point is that you get into the logic of the Clean Language mindset. When asking a question from your partner, be genuinely curious about the answer and put aside your own assumptions and judgements. Clean Language questions help you acquire buy-in of your counterpart. You’ll be surprised how fast a completely new range of potential solutions may emerge from establishing an outcome-oriented collaboration.

Hack #5                 Keep in mind the cause - your startup!

While getting fully entangled in the disagreement between the parties, don’t forget that besides the persons there is also a further key player in the story: it is the abstract "Cause", your startup itself, the main purpose, which has given reason for the whole plot. Bring it to the forefront and  put yourself into its perspective too. You can even play a little bit talking on its behalf, telling things like: „What will happen to me while you are tearing each other’s hair?” or „What is the best way for me to grow and develop to scale up in the future?”

Stay truly open to all of the scenarios until they are definitely excluded from the range of possibilities. Whatever happens later on, it is paramount to draw the right conclusions and learn the lessons.

Make a checklist and go through it carefully: have I done everything I wanted to remedy this partnership? Is there anything more that I could and intend to do? Can we continue working together with my partner?

Regardless of what the response will be, now you can pat your own shoulder because you’ve done a great job. I wish you a wonderful practicing along your journey!

Dora Orlosy is a business and career coach and an organizational development consultant with over 20 years of experience in change management and leadership coaching. She is supporting high performance individuals and teams with a positive psychology approach. Dora is also a skill mentor of early-stage startup teams at CEU iLab.  

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