HomeStartup Insights14 Pieces of Advice for Resolving Conflicts Among Startup Team Members

14 Pieces of Advice for Resolving Conflicts Among Startup Team Members

14 Pieces of Advice for Resolving Conflicts Among Startup Team Members

Navigating team conflicts in a startup environment requires wisdom and practical strategies. Drawing from the experiences of CEOs, Co-Founders, and other leaders, we’ve compiled fourteen diverse perspectives. From fostering open communication and empathy to acknowledging and navigating conflicts mindfully, these insights aim to help startups create a harmonious and productive team dynamic.

  • Foster Open Communication and Empathy
  • Rule Out Misunderstandings First
  • Leverage Startup Culture’s Flexibility
  • Utilize Data in Conflict Resolution
  • Hold “Clear the Air” Meetings
  • Create a Safe Space for Dialogue
  • Mediate with a Neutral Party
  • Understand and Address Communication Patterns
  • Embrace Neurodiversity for Innovative Solutions
  • Implement the “Role-Reversal Method”
  • Promote Empathy and Constructive Dialogue
  • Establish a Proactive Conflict Resolution Framework
  • Request Collaboration for Conflict Resolution
  • Acknowledge and Navigate Conflicts Mindfully

Foster Open Communication and Empathy

Conflict happens. But it’s how you handle it as a leader that will ultimately define your team’s success. It requires, dare I say it, active and open communication. I didn’t say it would be comfortable, nor is sticking your head in the sand and thinking it will just resolve itself. By fostering open communication, actively listening to all sides, and seeking win-win solutions, you can turn conflicts into opportunities for growth and innovation. 

As a leader/manager, what I have found is that if I address these conflicts head-on, with empathy and not trying to solve the problem but committing to understanding each other, I have been able to resolve immediate issues. In doing so, it strengthens the bonds among my team. After all, it’s not about avoiding conflict, but embracing it as a catalyst for positive change and collective success. 

Let me provide a story, or rather an example. I was working on launching a new product, and my team was up against an extremely tight deadline. Tensions were high, and expectations even higher. One of my employees, Kyle, thought we should prioritize our speed to market. Mark insisted on ensuring every detail would be perfect before we launched. 

While both had extremely great ideas and were passionate about their own way of deployment, it was harboring a rather tense work environment for everyone on the team, who ultimately felt they needed to choose sides. Instead of letting it simmer, with the potential to explode and derail the product launch, I gathered the entire team and we created a safe space for everyone to voice their concerns and their ideas. 

Through active listening and respectful dialogue, we uncovered the underlying priorities and concerns. Eventually, we found a compromise: a phased rollout that satisfied both the need for speed and quality. As a result, not only was the launch a huge success, but my team was more unified and ready to tackle whatever challenge came next. It all boiled down to listening and communicating.

Dawn Hart, Senior Consultant, Manage With Hart

Rule Out Misunderstandings First

Listen, ask questions, and gather all the context.

Too often in fast-paced, pressure-packed startups, there are simple misunderstandings. It is important to first rule out basic confusion or silly errors of omission to identify that there’s an actual problem. It’s not first grade. Treat teammates with the respect they deserve.

On a small team, it’s important to create transparency. Invite everyone involved to be part of the discussion and solution, but limit it to those people. It’s okay to exclude teammates who are not involved or impacted in the conversation and resolution.

Communicate clearly. Listen actively.

If escalation is needed, hopefully, this process has helped to frame the problem so that leaders can get a clearer picture of the conflicts and impacts and work quickly to help come to a consensus.

Chad Bellin, Co-Founder, Disca

Leverage Startup Culture’s Flexibility

Startup culture, often hyped for its dynamism and innovation, can be a double-edged sword. While it fosters creativity and agility, it can also present challenges like long hours, ambiguity, and an intense work environment. There usually is a lot of confusion and chaos that comes alongside innovation. 

At the same time, there is room for new skills, learning, and flexibility that comes along. Knowing this, some of the skills that have helped me navigate conflicts within myself and my team members have been: never judge your colleagues, never be satiated with the quest for knowledge and learning, no matter what stage your career is in. 

Keep your ego aside and be open to suggestions, even from your juniors; you could learn something new, or at the very least, you’re simply encouraging autonomy.

Syeda Arifa Tasneem, Clinical Psychologist, Recoup Health

Utilize Data in Conflict Resolution

When we launched, my co-founder and I often clashed over strategy. Initially, it felt like a battle of wills, but we’ve since shifted to a more evidence-based approach, thanks in part to insights from The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. Now, we discuss our differences with data and customer feedback, leading to more thoughtful decisions and a stronger partnership.

This approach has also positively influenced our team dynamics, encouraging open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving. It’s a testament to how constructive conflict, when handled well, can drive innovation and strengthen team bonds.

John Dunnill, Director, Moralbox

Hold “Clear the Air” Meetings

Resolving conflicts within a startup team requires a blend of empathy and strategy. My top advice? Embrace open communication as your North Star. Conflicts often stem from miscommunications or unmet expectations. We’ve navigated these waters by fostering an environment where team members feel safe expressing their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgment. 

A specific strategy that’s worked wonders for us is the “Clear the Air” meetings. These are safe spaces where team members can voice grievances, discuss misunderstandings, and collaboratively find solutions. It’s about understanding each other’s perspectives, not just airing grievances. This approach encourages a culture of transparency and mutual respect. 

The key isn’t just to resolve the conflict, but to learn from it. Each “Clear the Air” session ends with actionable takeaways to prevent similar issues in the future. By addressing conflicts head-on and learning from them, we’ve strengthened our team’s cohesion and resilience. Remember, it’s not about proving who’s right or wrong, but about moving forward together.

Hugo Lu, CEO, Orchestra

Create a Safe Space for Dialogue

To resolve conflicts, focus on allowing open and honest communication within your team. From my experience, creating a safe environment where everyone can share their feelings and perspectives without fear of judgment or retaliation is key. 

When I feel a conflict arising, I set up a meeting to make sure all sides have the time and space to express themselves fully. It’s an effective way to actively listen and seek to understand the root causes of the conflict. It’s about empathizing with each person’s perspective and finding common ground before it escalates further.

Bayu Prihandito, Founder, Psychology Consultant, and Life Coach for Men, Life Architekture

Mediate with a Neutral Party

I’m a big fan of Patrick Lencioni’s business novel The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, which encourages teams to lean into conflict. The best ideas only come from disagreement. That said, sometimes conflict can go too far. 

When conflict does go too far and emotions become raw, we often bring in an independent senior team member to mediate and resolve issues, making it clear they’re not there to play judge and jury, just to help guide the conversation to a resolution.

Corey Schwitz, CEO and Founder, Skydog Ops

Understand and Address Communication Patterns

When co-founding a startup, conflicts are inevitable, but how they’re managed can significantly impact the partnership and the business’s success. Reflecting on recent conflicts, it’s crucial to identify the trigger, understand the feelings involved, and recognize if negative communication patterns like criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling played a role. 

Understanding not only your own emotions but also those of your co-founder can shed light on underlying issues and how they affect communication. Acknowledging each other’s perspectives without judgment is key to uncovering common ground and differences, thereby fostering a more empathetic understanding.

Addressing unhealthy communication patterns and setting mutual goals for conflict resolution are essential steps toward strengthening the partnership. Discussing strategies for improving empathy, expressing appreciation, and committing to growth can transform conflicts from threats into opportunities for strengthening the relationship and the business. 

Creating a supportive environment and regularly revisiting conflict resolution goals will ensure continuous progress. By committing to these practices, co-founders can build a resilient partnership capable of navigating the challenges of growing a startup, thereby laying a strong foundation for both personal and professional success.

William Schroeder, Co-Owner, Just Mind Counseling

Embrace Neurodiversity for Innovative Solutions

Navigating conflicts within startup teams demands a unique approach. Tapping into the often underestimated power of neurodiversity can provide an innovative solution. To successfully address conflicts, embrace the diverse cognitive styles of your team members. Recognize the strength that neurodiversity adds to your collective problem-solving capabilities. This not only resolves conflicts, but transforms them into opportunities for innovative thinking and collaboration.

Make neurodiversity your guiding principle. Encourage an environment that values distinct perspectives, fostering a culture of understanding and teamwork. By doing so, conflicts become not just challenges to overcome, but stepping stones toward a more resilient and creative startup. Embrace the richness of ideas that emerge when each team member’s unique cognitive strengths are acknowledged and integrated into your problem-solving approach.

Tyler Butler, Founder, Collaboration for Good

Implement the “Role-Reversal Method”

In the dynamic environment of any startup, conflicts among team members are not just challenges; they’re opportunities for growth and innovation. My advice? Embrace conflicts as a catalyst for team development rather than hurdles. I’ve utilized an unconventional yet effective approach within my team: the “Role-Reversal Method.”

Whenever a conflict arises, we engage in a session where disputing parties swap roles and argue from the other’s perspective. This exercise isn’t merely about understanding the other side; it’s all about experiencing their viewpoint, concerns, and emotions. It’s fascinating how this method breaks down barriers and fosters empathy, often leading to innovative solutions neither party had initially considered.

We’ve also found that incorporating a “Creative Resolution” session further aids in navigating conflicts. Post role-reversal, team members collaboratively devise a list of resolutions, no matter how outlandish they may seem. This lightens the mood and also encourages thinking outside the box. We then refine these ideas into workable solutions. This transforms conflict resolution into a team-building and problem-solving exercise, promoting a culture where challenges are met with creativity and collaboration.

Successfully navigating conflicts in this manner has resolved disputes and strengthened our team, fostering a more profound sense of unity, understanding, and respect for diverse perspectives. It’s a testament to the idea that the heart of conflict resolution lies in embracing differences as a source of strength and innovation.

Ethan Hynes, Founder and Home Expert, You Comfort

Promote Empathy and Constructive Dialogue

When it comes to resolving conflicts among startup team members, empathy and communication are key. I always encourage team members to step into each other’s shoes and try to understand differing viewpoints. Setting up a safe space where everyone can voice their concerns without judgment is crucial. 

Personally, when I’ve navigated conflicts in teams, I’ve found that it helps to address issues promptly and focus on the problem, not the person. Aligning everyone on common goals and values can also bridge differences. I believe conflicts can be opportunities for growth if handled constructively.

Zain Abedeen, Outreach specialist, Bizitron

Establish a Proactive Conflict Resolution Framework

With resolving conflicts among team members, proactive communication and establishing a framework for conflict resolution (before the conflict occurs) are essential. Create a safe and respectful environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts. This helps prevent conflicts from escalating and allows for early intervention. 

Proactively discuss and establish a conflict resolution framework as part of team discussions or meetings. Address potential areas of disagreement and agree on how conflicts will be handled. This sets the stage for productive conflict resolution when disagreements arise. 

Then, when conflicts arise, ensure that team members actively listen to each other and try to understand different perspectives. Encourage team members to focus on finding mutually beneficial solutions rather than pursuing a win-lose outcome. Emphasize the importance of compromise and collaboration to ensure that conflicts are resolved in a way that benefits the team and the startup as a whole.

Heidi Hauver, Chief People Officer

Request Collaboration for Conflict Resolution

I don’t think you can resolve all conflicts in exactly the same way. In one instance, I was leading a startup, and one of the senior leadership team was opposed to the strategy. He had been part of the team when we developed it but was unwilling to commit despite having failed to persuade the team to his point of view. 

Eventually, he left the company. But most conflicts are about individuals and how they see their own role and autonomy. In one organization I led, a product manager was extremely ambitious for the roadmap. She was well-aligned with the sales and marketing teams and wanted to accelerate development to meet the market opportunity. 

However, the head of engineering was emphatic that his team needed a slower pace—that the complexity of the roadmap wouldn’t allow them to meet the proposed milestones. In that particular case, I had them both meet with me together. I had asked each of them to write a few pages explaining their perspective and circulate it to all three of us prior to the meeting. Then, I had them each argue the other’s position to me. 

In other words, the head of engineering had to make the case for the faster roadmap, and the product manager had to make the case for slowing down development. As each of them put themselves in their adversary’s mindset, they gained some perspective. Ultimately, they came up with a third way. Some aspects of the roadmap could be developed as quickly as desired, and some of the complexity would be introduced more slowly. This had been a recurring conflict, so I wanted to push them to collaborate instead of arguing. 

However, the same kind of approach can be done much more quickly. I often demand that those in conflict work together to fulfill a basic mission or solve a specific problem that they are currently butting heads over. When they are arguing, they (like all of us) are operating with binary bias—assuming the options are limited only to their respective choices. But typically, there are myriad alternatives. 

We just don’t see them when we are feeling defensive. But when the adversaries are assigned to solve the problem together—and explicitly told to come up with at least one (and ideally more) alternatives, they find a better way and end up with appreciation for their colleague instead of rancor.

Amie Devero, President, Beyond Better Strategy and Coaching

Acknowledge and Navigate Conflicts Mindfully

My experience with conflicts goes a long way, and I have never shied away from them, even if they are unpleasant. If we consider evolutionary psychology, conflicts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Any potentially serious relationship deepens after conflicts. Just think about your family. Is there any family without conflicts? Zero. 

The same is true in startups. The environment in startups is fast-paced and constantly changing. It cannot escape conflicts, and it’s part of human nature. Now, what can you do?

Acknowledging that conflicts are inevitable will already improve the way you approach and handle the situation. You have to focus on not personally attacking people and on saying or doing things that will hurt trust. 

Some things cannot be unsaid or undone. Be careful with those. But other than that, open communication and transparency that encourage issues to be addressed and resolved as soon as they appear will release a lot of tension and prevent hidden toxic issues that can surface or kill a company later in the game.

Cristina Imre, Founder Tech Leadership Lab and Quantum Wins Consultant, Tech Leadership Lab

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