If you want to end recurring disagreements, you need to understand the deeper issues creating problems for your team
Hundreds of cofounders contact me each year to help them improve their team’s functioning and communication. But the superficial topics of disagreement often conceal the deeper origin of their difficulties.
The most common disagreements cofounders experience include issues with equity and compensation, roles and responsibilities, vision and strategic alignment, problems with hiring, firing, and fundraising, and high- or low-growth periods.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Addressing any of these issues does little to change the long-term trajectory of founding teams unless the conflict’s deeper layers are identified, named, and worked through.
My background as a clinical psychologist and cofounder coach gives me unique insight into the psychological underpinnings of cofounder conflict and has helped me pinpoint the individual and collective contributing factors giving rise to cofounder strain.
1. Stress management
Burnout is a real threat to the sustainability of partnerships.
Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion reduce your ability to manage your emotions, think clearly, and engage in the emotional work required to build and maintain healthy relationships.
Founders often experience extreme highs and lows in their entrepreneurial journey, which tend to correlate with the performance of their company.
Highs feel great (then become overwhelming when founders do not rest) and lows feel awful (because everything feels urgent). This emotional rollercoaster enhances emotional dysregulation, increases irritability, and increases the probability of arguments escalating.
The solution to chronic dysregulation involves consistent routines, exercise, diet, and sleep pattern.
These boundaries not only help founders maintain physical and mental health, they also protect your partnership.
2. Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome impacts a wide range of founders at various points in the startup journey and impacts team functioning, especially when it is concealed and unnamed.
When founders do not acknowledge their fears and insecurities with one another, it reduces the vulnerability required for trust, amplifies their feelings of loneliness, and prevents them from establishing a support network to buffer the effects of a difficult lifestyle.
Further, when founders feel isolated from one another they tend to express emotional needs for support in unconscious, unproductive ways.
As an example, a group of three cofounders noticed one individual struggling to adapt to their role post Series A.
The team member in question lacked management experience and his team chronically underperformed. Instead of asking for more support (or raising a potential restructure), he appeared self-critical in meetings—a defensive posture (attacking himself so others would not share negative feedback) and an unconscious wish for them to provide greater emotional support.
By working to create greater vulnerability and trust within the team, this individual shared his feelings of imposter syndrome and the limitations he faced as a manager. The group decided to expense an executive coach and slightly restructure his role to alleviate several managerial responsibilities.
On a personal level, naming these issues allowed team members to show their emotional support of this individual for who they are and who they would like to become. Both were needed to create organizational change.
Perfectionist traits create conflict on several fronts.
On one hand, the perfectionist is often self-critical, which leads to interpreting the other person’s comments or lack of comments as negative rather than neutral. This creates a painful internal narrative the other person may be angry or disappointed and amplifies the underlying insecurities of the perfectionist, who may feel controlled and chronically inadequate.
On the other hand, perfectionism may reduce speed of execution due to a desire to get things “perfect” before shipping. When the desire for perfectionism is disproportionate to the demands of the task, it may become detrimental to the company’s rate of growth.
Each of these dynamics of internal tension causing a misattribution of the other party’s intent and slowed external execution increase the likelihood of conflict in founding teams.
4. Personality Differences
We all have different values, personality traits, and ways of relating to others.
These unique personality styles are often first perceived as endearing before differences become more difficult to manage and rigid under stress.
After spending enough time working with someone, what was once a pleasant counterbalance becomes an arthritic knee — you feel it’s annoying dull ache and wish it would stop.
As an example, sometimes founders love their partner’s need for structure, but later report it to be suffocating and controlling. Other founders admire their partner’s out-of -the-box thinking and later perceive it as etherial and abstract, lacking in substance.
Each personality matchup within a founding team creates unique strengths and weaknesses.
Personality differences create an inherent tension in the partnership that must be managed. As each person’s coping strategies become more visible, the partnership must possess sufficient trust to tolerate and discuss differences, or the team will splinter.
1. Dual (Multiple) Relationships
Multiple relationships means you are both cofounders and something else. Perhaps you are friends, married, or family. These types of cofounder and-something partnerships are more complicated to navigate than pure “business partners” because of this key dilemma:
If the business fails, your relationship suffers. If your relationship suffers, the business may fail.
This uncomfortable catch-22 has big personal and professional implications.
For example, a pair of friends-turned-cofounders are trying to work through resentment that has threatened to tear their company apart.
One founder tended to be more controlling in the business, while the other feels they have been personally attacked by their friend. Unpacking the power dynamics and trust issues within their personal relationship is necessary to help them avoid devastating professional consequences.
Similarly, two married cofounders of a bootstrapped business are experiencing conflict at work and in their personal lives. They struggle separating themselves from work — like many founders, they live and breathe their startup. But because they are married, the spillover effect of work conflict negatively impacting their personal relationship (and vice versa) is amplified.
To turn things around, founders with multiple relationships must find ways to separate each component and give each the care it deserves.
2. Disputes of Power
The next three items come from psychotherapist Esther Perel’s work with couples.
At the root of many business decisions is the need for power and debates about who has it and who does not.
Power in cofounding teams can be defined as the capacity to influence the behaviors of others in a particular way.
Often, power is assumed to be relegated to who possesses the most equity, who holds the title of CEO, or who makes the final decision. But these are the domains in which power dynamics are expressed not power itself, which can manifest in more subtle forms than these categories convey.
Power can feel uncomfortable to discuss and lead to flat structures, co-CEO, or other diffuse arrangements because power feels too threatening to address directly.
Please read more on this topic here.
3. Debates of Recognition
Cofounders often want their contributions to feel seen and valued by their partner.
When this is not the case — as often occurs when certain roles are considered more or less valuable, quantifiable, and externally visible—it can lead to recurring disagreements.
Unfortunately, most cofounders either lack the emotional vulnerability or the self-reflective capacity to identify, name, and ask for these needs to be met. More often, they lash out in forms of criticism or go to war over small disagreements when they feel unrecognized.
4. Arguments of closeness
Each individual has a different desire for distance or closeness in a relationship.
Some cofounders believe they must be best friends to be successful, others think they need to prioritize business over their emotional closeness, and others still have conflicting needs because of multiple relationships requiring different degrees of closeness.
Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, it is important to have an explicit conversation about these needs so they do not play out in unhealthy patterns like avoidance or withdrawal—unconscious ways to create distance.
I notice these differences in desired support change throughout the lifecycle of a company, increasing in moments of difficulty. These emotional needs for care and closeness are often expressed in misalignment with vision and strategy.
The desire for business alignment is often a deeper longing to be in sync with one’s partner—to feel more connected.
5. Communication Style
How you communicate with one another is often at the root of all cofounder disagreements.
Most arguments and conflicts are not about the topic of conversation. As I mentioned above, a disagreement about business alignment might both represent a concrete business issue that needs corrected and a personal plea for greater closeness. An argument about equity and role may have more to do with a desire to feel recognized and valued for one’s contributions than it does with the percentage and tasks.
Most communication problems occur when cofounders conflate the business misalignment with an unidentified emotional issue in the partnership.
Communication in founding teams must evolve over time and become a source of strength to mitigate the impact of personality, perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and stress management.
If left unaddressed, communication style and the individual components mentioned above are enough to create failure otherwise promising ventures.
These individual and collective factors are the root cause of cofounder conflict.
If you or your team want long-term improvements in team communication and performance, you need to identify, name, and work through these underlying components, whether alone or with the aid of a cofounder coach.
There is no other way to create lasting change.
Author: Dr. Matthew Jones