Handling Tension and Conflict on Your Startup Team (Management)

Copy of Interview Idea to Launch- YVR Startups

As you expand your startup and bring in co-founders and early employees, challenges are bound to happen and having good management, leadership and communication expectations is essential for growth. Today we have coach and author, Dawna Jones, sharing with us how important communication is in a team environment.


Scenario 1: Jason looked at what his team had delivered. It was not what he had in mind. “That is not what I asked for,” he said as kindly as he could. The team members just looked at him. They’d worked extra hours to meet the deadline, had been sure they’d understood the requirement, and now were feeling T-Boned.  After working 12-14 hours a day, the idea of starting over again was disheartening but they knew that’s what they had to do. Jason’s team had interpreted his direction one way; Jason had visualized something else. No one is at fault but the team feels disheartened and Jason feels let down by the team.


Source of Conflict #1: Failure to communicate the requirement so that the team knows the goal and are enabled to adapt to changing conditions or opportunities without seeking permission.


Antidote: Set a goal either alone or in consultation with the team.

If alone: 1) Ask the team why the goal is worth accomplishing and how it will help the customer or user experience. This is not a test. It is a way to explore and establish a common understanding of why the task is important (the purpose and value) and what vision they have for accomplishing it. Then get out of their way. Let them figure out how to achieve it.

If you decide as a team: 2) Join the team as a peer and co-design as you go.


If your management/team member style is closer to the first version it doesn’t look like you expected, then either you didn’t articulate your expectations or you need to accept their creative response as a novel and different way to attain the goal. If it is closer to the peer to peer learning then you are more likely to come up with something that you couldn’t have predicted in the beginning but now have a better solution.


Scenario #2: Jenna had looked at the schedule, verified her hours, then made plans. Out of the blue, she discovered that her hours had been changed, she had not been consulted or notified and now she had to rearrange her life to accommodate work. She was not happy.


Source of Conflict #2: Sudden change in plans without consultation or consideration creates resentment and inconvenience. Employee doesn’t feel valued. Management may or may not get what they want.


Antidote: Agree on how you’ll make decisions that impact the lives of people involved. Agree on how you’ll communicate change (what medium, for instance, Slack) and how soon beforehand to be given fair notice.

Conflict and tension are signals of something trying to be expressed. Is it a common and shared vision? A need for transparency in decision making? Timely and clear lines of communication?

Take time in the moment or at minimum weekly to air out:

  • * What is happening? Articulate it as a team remembering there are different perspectives with no one holding the single truth.
  • What is needed? What is trying to be expressed through the tension?
  • If we don’t respond, will this negatively impact our working relationships? Our company? *

Avoiding or suppressing tension and conflict results in a spiral down effect where working relationships get way worse before they get better. Picking up on tension and processing it positively and transparently puts working relationships and the company in growth mode. Rather than risking a conflict between the workplace culture you promised and the one that is emerging, constructively handling conflict and tension is part of leading as a business owner or team member or human being.

*[This 3 step process comes from Sociocracy 3.0 courtesy James Priest.]

Dawna Jones is the author of Decision Making for Dummies a modern handbook for business and personal growth on Steve Denning’s (Forbes) list of 8 noteworthy books for 2014.  She hosts the Insight to Action podcast for business innovators. Her previous podcast includes programs on self-managed companies. She also blogs monthly for Great Workplace Cultures on the Huffington Post and has published on StartupMagazine.comContact her at dawna@frominsighttoaction.com or through LinkedIn



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