I spoke with a serial startup founder a few weeks ago that clued me on his opinion of what kills startups: conflict at the co-founder level.

Disagreements around the topics of “who gets to decide what, who is working harder, or whose opinion matters most” threaten the very business founders are attempting to build.

These issues can simmer slowly for months before exploding. The stress of building a scalable product and bringing it to market, coupled with the challenge of finding the correct way to communicate all of these worries, without making it personal, can strain the co-founder relationship.

Before a disagreement kills your startup, try mediation. Through an impartial, third party, known as a mediator, the founders get support for navigating conversations by looking at the issue in the following ways:

1. Separating the Person from the Problem

It can be hard to stay rational when discussing the future of your business or other sensitive issues. Like most people, founders or business partners can take things personally, getting angry, frustrated, or even annoyed, which results in cognitive inertia (i.e., the inability to correct past assumptions based upon new information).

This sets the stage for each founder to try to persuade the other to his or her side, without accommodating their partner, and using past behaviors as a litmus test to understand how the other founders may react or decide the issue. Basically, setting up a war zone to attack the problem.

Mediation corrects these assumptions by approaching business issues first as people problems. The founders are recognized as regular people, and their beliefs, viewpoints, and expertise are acknowledged without judgment or blame. Mediators do this by:

1.     Acknowledging perceptions without judgment;

2.     Maintaining a communication space that is without blame;

3.     Facilitating the calm expression of emotions or negative sentiments ;

4.     Calling out conciliatory statements; and

5.     Finding common ground.

2. Looking at Interests, Not Positions

Business can quickly become transactional. This creates a win/lose mentality: "I want XYZ and I'm willing to do ABC to get what I want." This leaves little room for understanding the other side and their perspective.

A mediator structures a conversation to go beyond a win/lose mentality so it promotes win-win solutions. He does this by improving how the founders talk about their issues. An example from “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” illustrates how this is done:

“Two men are quarreling in a library because one wants the window open while the other wants it closed. No solution satisfies either of them; neither a crack, halfway, nor three-quarters of the way closed will do. Enter the librarian. She simply asks one why he wants the window open, in which he replies, “To get some fresh air.” The librarian then asks the other the same question, to which he replies, “To avoid the draft.” After thinking about it, the librarian opens wide a window in the next room, which brings in fresh air without a draft, satisfying both.”

Mediation is a process that looks at interests, instead of positions, and asks important questions to get to the heart of why someone wants something. Much like the iceberg photo above, the mediator unearths each founder’s interests which are then used as the basis for the joint problem-solving process that the mediator uses to find solutions.

3. A Collaborative Problem-Solving Process

Much like a brainstorming session, the mediator facilitates a collaborative problem-solving process that is based upon each person's interests.

The founders must commit to work together to get this done – it requires collaboration and a little creative ingenuity so that everyone involved can leave happy.

The mediator structures the conversation, again reminding the founders of their perceptions and interests involved, by looking for the following:

1.     Shared interests between the founders;

2.     Acknowledging preferences on issues without judgment;

3.     Finding opportunities for mutual gain; and

4.     Pointing out what is of high value to someone that is of low value to the other.

This produces a range of options that the mediator and founders work through to produce a result that leaves everyone equally satisfied.

If mediation is successful, the founders’ working relationship is restored or enhanced.

The founders correct past assumptions and beliefs about themselves, and their co-founders are able to articulate positions without blame or judgment. Greater collaboration between the founders results in openness and trust that ripples beyond the mediation session.

Mediation, in the end, could save your startup and let the founders involved get back to doing what they love most: working on the business!.

Bottom Line: mediation helps founders caught in a disagreement by separating the people involved from the issue, unearthing their interests and why they want what they want, and allowing everyone involved to tackle potential solutions without judgment or blame. Don’t let a co-founder dispute kill your startup – try mediation before it does! 

March 1, 2018

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