Co-Founder Conflict: Productive or Destructive?
We hear from Lisa Conners Vogt - Executive Coach to Co-Founder Teams and Visionary Leaders. Lisa partners with clients to elevate all aspects of their lives, starting with their most pressing challenges. Drawing on her experience, she delves into the topic of co-founder conflicts below.
My work with co-founder teams always addresses conflict, which can be productive or destructive. In healthy, high-performing teams, conflict is welcome and productive. And when it’s destructive, it can threaten the stability and future of the company.
Conflict is often driven by beliefs or experiences related to an aspect of a co-founder’s life that may only be tangentially related to the business. Whether we want to admit it or not, business, career, health, and personal relationships are all interrelated. When one is out of sync, it affects the other. And when one area is optimised and feels amazing, it elevates everything else.
What is Conflict?
Conflict is tension experienced by one or more team members when they are seemingly not aligned on a critical aspect of the business. This could manifest in tactical disagreements involving how to manage day-to-day operations. Or, it could involve a more strategic disconnect about the company mission and vision, and the impact that each person wants to make in the world.
Destructive vs Productive Conflict
Destructive conflict is a lack of alignment that is not diagnosed. It might play out in obvious ways, or it might be invisible to anyone who isn’t interacting with the co-founders on a regular basis.
It can lurk beneath the surface infecting all team interactions. Like an undetected cancer that’s not diagnosed and treated, destructive conflict wears away at everyone involved until it destroys the structures and culture that the team created from the outset.
Destructive conflict can play out in multiple ways. Some of the most prevalent behaviours are explosive disputes, public belittling, avoidance and silence, and manipulation using others as pawns.
Destructive conflict is an existential threat to the future of the company.
Productive conflict is disagreement that is addressed directly and respectfully. It fuels growth and helps to drive the business forward. It involves discussing varying points of view and welcoming different perspectives. It’s an inclusive debate that may not be settled with unanimous agreement but welcomes each co-founder to voice their opinion and be treated with respect during and after the discussion.
Productive conflict can play out in discussions facilitated by a neutral third party, through regularly scheduled discussions between all co-founders (more about this later), and through informal interactions.
Every team experiences disagreement at some point. In fact, if the team doesn’t experience conflict, chances are destructive conflict is brewing beneath the surface and may erupt like a volcano at the worst time possible.
Three Actions to Create Productive Conflict
You might be wondering what you can do to harness healthy, productive conflict and address destructive conflict. The three actions below will create consistent non-superficial conversations, address challenges at a root cause level, and create awareness of yourself and those you work with. The combination of all three is a recipe for success.
- Schedule a Standing Meeting with your co-founder(s). These meetings should be held at least once a week for at least 60-minutes. Consider this to be a sacred time that is only disrupted for significant emergencies. The discussion can take place virtually, over breakfast or lunch, or it can be a walking meeting. Use the time to ask and answer questions that don’t get discussed at other meetings. Examples: What are you struggling with? How can I help? What went well for you this week? What opportunities might we be missing?
- Address a Root Cause. Consider one challenge or disagreement that arises for you or your co-founder team repeatedly. This is that thing that never seems to get resolved and is an ongoing source of friction. Schedule a meeting with your team to Resolve One Open Thing (ROOT ™) and keep at it until you uncover the root cause of this topic. You may not get it resolved in one meeting and that’s okay! At least you’ve gotten the discussion started. Schedule a follow-up meeting to take place within one week to keep the momentum going while the discussion is still fresh in your minds.
- Take a DiSC Productive Conflict Assessment. Each member of your co-founder team should take an assessment and discuss results one-on-one with an executive coach and as a team, in a facilitated session. The assessment describes with high accuracy how you view and respond to conflict, and how you can more effectively manage conflict with every personality type. As you become more aware of your tendencies and those of your teammates, you’ll better manage conflict, leading to a highly resilient team that can address even the most existential challenges.
If you’re already taking one or more of these actions, then you’re on the right track! However, if you’ve fallen into patterns of not addressing “the elephant in the room,” you probably aren’t taking all three actions and it’s time to try something new.
If you’ve got other suggestions to address conflict, or you’d like to learn more about DiSC Productive Conflict or Executive Coaching, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisaconnersvogt/.