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Prenup for a Startup 7: Team dynamics

Image: Tau Zero

The team in front of me had one person missing, one person talking, one person interrupting and one person actively engaged with... her phone. All in the same meeting, discussing the vision for their start-up and how they were going to go to market and scale.

I’m trained to ask penetrative questions, actively listen to what is being said and how and finely attuned to what is not being said. Observe body language, facial expressions, get a feel for the dynamics between people as well as notice potential fracture points. In this team there was an earthquake in the making and a big chance of a startup going nowhere.

Ten warning signs from a team on the road to nowhere:

1. Each member is doing their own thing in a forum where team cohesion is important.

You might not agree with what your colleague is saying but glazing over and clocking out when she speaks is not an option. In front of clients or investors a sense of cohesive co-founder dynamics is even more important. An investor knows that the team is more than the product. A client knows that if you struggling with each other, you are also going to struggle with delivery.

2. Rolling your eyes, sighing or throwing your hands in the air when you don’t agree with what is being said by another team member.

Granted, this was an expressive Mediterranean team. Hot Latin blood and even hotter gestures and voices, but any gesture or comment that conveys contempt is a shortcut to destruction.

Although the work of the Gottman Institute focusses on the interaction between couples, the 4 Horsemen of the apocalypse definitely applies to teams as well.

3. Having completely different ideas about what your purpose is, who your market is, where your product is going and when or whether to pivot or not.

Why are you not talking to each other about your business vision? Are you working for the same startup? If you have opposing ideas about product, purpose, market and vision in a public forum, you come across as individuals working in silos and pulling in different directions.

4. Different rules for different people.

It is very difficult to build a culture of trust and accountability in a team when it is clear that there is favouritism at play. It is never okay, but easier to hide favouritism in larger organisations, in a small startup team it is virtually impossible and generally leads to resentment and fractured team dynamics.

5. Using language that doesn't land

All of us have trigger words and trigger phrases that prevent us from hearing or caring about what is being said, because we feel judged, dismissed, diminished or patronised. It is not possible to constantly speak in a way that doesn't trigger anyone but it is much easier for people to listen to you and your point of view if you talk to them and not at them. The use of words and phrases that diminish are simply not acceptable in any context. "You are intelligent enough to understand this", "I don't understand why you don't get this?" are simply not acceptable.

6. Not listening to each other

Everyone in the team was so busy trying to get their point across that no one listened for understanding, they only listened to respond. Which meant no questions for clarification, no time to think or engage with a different perspective or suggestion and a lot of talking at the same time. No one felt heard, and I doubt if anyone felt understood. If you want to get anywhere you have to make time to listen to other people in your team. Even if you don't agree, even if it is uncomfortable and even if it means you have to let go of your own perspective and adopt a new one.

7. Do you even like each other?

You don't have to like everyone you work with but in a small startup team, liking the people around you matters a lot more than it does in a big corporate team. When you like someone there is a general understanding between you that helps anything you do to flow smoother. There are fewer barriers to break through and energy you would have spent on masking or minimising your dislike can be channeled into the project. It takes emotional maturity to respect someone and the working relationship even if you don't like them. In this team the dislike was palpable and respect sorely lacking.

8. Trust doesn't grow, where it doesn't feel safe

You get four levels of trust: Connection, Confidence, Reliability, Integrity

  • Trust is about predictability. Most fundamental level of trust is one of connection/disconnection. Am I part of the “in-group” or not? How do I fall out of the in-group? Fairly easy to reestablish trust at this level but if you are not even sure if you like your partners it is more difficult to establish connection.

  • Second level is trust and confidence in you and/or your competence. If trust is broken at this level we need to put steps for delivery in place to mitigate damage. We can’t wait for the final date or deadline without intervention.

  • Third level is Reliability: If I cant rely on you, you have broken trust on this level. To restore: Be aligned on what is expected upfront, Create milestones and proactive updates.

  • Last and most difficult to restore is Integrity (Values and ethics) Long climb back if you break trust at this level. Understand that it needs ownership, and apology and walking the talk.

9. The founder only swoops into the programme once in a while

A founder or founders should not underestimate the impact of their presence on the team. I'm not advocating micro-managing, it refers to knowing what is going on in the team simply by osmoses in the kitchen and corridor. Setting the tone for the culture, creating opportunities for communication and making sure the team members are aligned is the responsibility of the founder. You rely on your team to make your vision a reality and do what is in the best interest of the business, shouldn’t you also do what is best for your team?

10. The (mostly) absent founder hasn’t abdicated decision making

If you trust your team or want to build a culture of trust , give them a mandate to use their initiative and make decisions without having to check every decision with you beforehand. The start-up world moves at a lightning pace and in an accelerator programme the pressure is high. It is frustrating and debilitating if your team has to wait on you for answers or instructions before they can move ahead. If you are too scared to abdicate decision making because you don’t trust your team’s ability to execute or make the right decision for the business, that is a completely different conversation…

If it is called a team, it should look like a team and act like a team. Especially, in front of outsiders. In a time of democratisation of ideas, investors and customers bet on team, the team's ability to connect the dots and deliver a cohesive narrative and their ability to execute. Just having a good idea is not good enough.

Good teams communicate and if they struggle to, they get someone like me to help them. They trust, they support and are supported, they value the same things, they have the same destination in mind and agree on what is in the best interest of the business.

There is an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” How far (and where) is your current team going?

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