– Jeff Bussgang is a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School. He is the author of “Mastering the VC Game” and writes the blog “Seeing Both Sides“. The views expressed are his own. –
One of my favorite business books of all time is Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Like all books by Lencioni, it begins with a short fable in a corporate setting of a management team that is operating dysfunctionally. Then he provides a framework that analyzes the situation and draws out the general lessons as to why teams operate poorly together and how to systematically combat it.
The following pyramid graphic summarizes his advice:
Each of the layers of the pyramid resonate with me (which is probably why I have this pyramid printed and hung up in my office), but the one that I always come back to and re-read is “Fear of Conflict”. Again and again, I see management teams and boards of directors shy away from conflict.
It’s quite natural for humans to avoid conflict. In fact, our deeply programmed “fight or flight” instincts are designed to protect ourselves and run away when we sense danger. Interpersonal conflict is a danger we all prefer to avoid as it makes us uncomfortable. Your stomach gets a little queasy, your heart beats a little faster, and you think, “How do I get out of this situation?”
So, you tell a joke. You change the topic. And you feel a sense of relief.
When I see this happening in management teams and in board rooms, it makes me uncomfortable because I know where it leads. It leads to mistrust, simmering issues, politics and dysfunctional behavior. Here are a few techniques I’ve found that help address this issue, particularly in startups.