Conflict is Natural and Good in a Startup

A recent HBR video spurred me to think about conflict. Society teaches us to avoid conflict, which is a decent general survival strategy; however, it benefits us to understand why it’s natural and good–especially in a startup.

It’s Natural

Conflict is borne from differences. As a people, we’re differentiated by gender, race, ethnicity, education, religion, politics, etc. It’s why we have such a rich variety of cultures and individuals. It’s how we get Picassos and Einsteins. But it’s also how we get serial killers. Each of us has a unique point of view and a rich history of experience that shapes how we think. In a startup, you’ll have a group of people who try to use the sum of this knowledge and experience to make decisions that will ultimately decide whether or not the company survives. The personalities of this group is self-selected from the passionate and risk-taking part of society. Furthermore, startups are usually starved for resources, which inevitably leads to hard prioritization decisions. If you don’t fight for your part, who will?

It’s Good

Without conflict, a startup team is missing voices. If people don’t fight for their thoughts and beliefs, the best solution to a problem may never have been presented at all. People are typically poor at making complex decisions individually. If you have an frontend engineer, a backend engineer, and a platform engineer all discuss a problem, they’ll attack it from different angles and bring a broader set of solutions. If everyone’s a backend engineer–well, it’s really about covering all the bases. 

Moving Forward

Granted, this is the optimal case. If you have conflict that focuses on personal grudges that taint every discussion, that’s not gonna help. If you have people who enjoy conflict for the sake of conflict, then watch out. If you a wide range of talents (A vs B vs C players), this can make it more challenging. They key is to realize *why* there’s conflict. If you know that the guy across the table doesn’t agree with you because your goals aren’t aligned–that could be an easy road block to remove. If you recognize that everyone’s fighting for the same finite resources–that could be opportunity to reach common ground. Whatever it is…understanding the other parties in the discussion is the key to making good come out of conflict.


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