If you were fighting with your co-founder, you might ask your VC for advice. You might get a leadership coach. You might fume to your friends. But chances are excellent you wouldn't think to hire a couples therapist. That's a mistake, according to Esther Perel. 

According to the best-selling author, psychotherapist, and leading voice in couples therapy (she also hosts of a pair of riveting podcasts), relationships are relationships, whether they're carried out in the home or the office. The same sorts of fears, unconscious beliefs, and bad communication strategies can trip us up no matter the theater for the conflict. 

"We covet authenticity, belonging, trust, empathy, and transparency, at the office and at home. We want a partner who will help us become the best version of ourselves, whether we're building a business or forging a life together," Perel explains in a recent in-depth First Round Review article

Which is why Perel's turn toward helping co-founders sort out their spats makes sense. And why viewing co-founder conflict through the prism of relationship counseling can be so helpful. In fact, Perel insists that almost all workplace fights boil down to one of three basic conflicts, all of which will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever been in a romantic relationship. 

1. Power and control 

Maybe you complain that your business partner fails to share important information. Maybe your technical co-founder keeps insisting she's got the more valuable skill set. Maybe one of you is always threatening to leave. These sound like very different problems, but according to Perel they boil down to the same basic issue: power and control.  

"Whose priorities matter more? Who gets to make the decisions? Who stays late and grinds harder? Who doesn't involve the other? Who takes the high-level meetings? The theme of 'power and control' is about money, status, and who has the final word -- and it's a big driver of conflict between co-founders," she writes. 

2. Care and closeness 

"Do you have my back? Are we in this together? Conflicts rooted in care and closeness always come back to broken trust, the 'I thought I could count on you' kind of statements. When trust is broken, it shatters all of our assumptions about the relationship and our value in it," Perel explains. 

Unsure if you're fighting about power or care? Perel suggests you ask yourself a simple question to tell the two issues apart: "What hurts you more? The fact that they did it in the first place -- or that they did it without you?" 

If you're more bothered by what they did, you have a power problem. If it's the way they did it alone that bothers you, you're trouble is trust. 

3. Respect and recognition 

Sometimes the problem isn't who gets to make the call, or whether you've got each other's back. Sometimes the problem is who gets to bask in the glory of the team's successes. 

These conflicts can reveal themselves in fights over unbalanced press coverage, complaints about how praise and criticism are doled out, or battles over whose projects will have more impact. But all these problems trace back to the same set of questions: "Are you taking all the credit? Do I matter? Do you see how hard I work and how much I do? Are my contributions being valued?" 

In the complete article, Perel dishes out tips to diffuse each type of conflict, advice on how to manage fights with your co-founders more productively in general, and stories from her work in the trenches of co-founder bust-ups. It's a fascinating read if you're hoping to be one of the 35 percent of startups that don't fail because of conflicts among the founders.   

Published on: Jan 23, 2020
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