I’ve been lucky to have worked with some cool startups and met some pretty awesome founders in the process. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard a lot of stories of the not so awesome founders who think they’re the bee’s knees and therefore entitled to be assholes. If you’ve had any dealings in the startup community, I bet you’ve also met your fair share of founders who left you thinking “WTF?”
Today I talked to a friend who relayed to me how horribly she was treated by a startup founder. Since I hear stories like that all the time, I thought that it’s worth a blog post for a few of the most common stories I’ve heard over the years. The following are some examples of behaviors that a founder somehow thought was A-OK, but they’re actually unacceptable in the “real” world. If reading this helps just one founder realize how their behavior affects others, then I’m happy. But yes, it’s also a bit of a rant.
Founders – what you say can hurt people. And that’s not OK. Especially if you want to build a company. Be direct, but don’t go overboard.
Example 1: Giving feedback
An employee approaches the founder with a project that’s still in progress and asks if she’s on the right track. Founder answers “That’s stupid.”
What’s wrong with this picture? “That’s stupid” is not good feedback. Forget the fact that you should have probably developed a vocabulary that goes past “that’s stupid” in third grade. This sort of curt remark does nothing to help the employee get on the right track. In fact, it has the opposite effect – it demotivates the employee because their work was so easily dismissed. And it won’t lead to better work because it leaves the employee not knowing what to improve. Also, this sort of sharp, negative wording can be hurtful to an employee personally. Long term this sort of language will cause the employee to underperform and perhaps even leave the company.
Try this instead: If you really don’t like what the employee is showing you, think about specific things you don’t like. Present your feedback constructively, telling the employee what you don’t like and give them background as to why you don’t like it so that they can improve. Specific examples are always helpful. When it’s not a total disaster, a “shit sandwich” tends to work well – tell them something that you like, then what you hate and close with something else you like. Above all, remember that in general people mean well so there’s no reason to call them or their work stupid.
Example 2: Public disrespect
Open office environment. A team that sits together and can hear what’s going on around them. Employee A is excited that employee B finally joined the team. She spots the founder and says “Isn’t it great that employee B is finally here?” and the founder answers, “Yes. He’s smarter than you and your whole team.” He says this without a hint of irony, in front of others. Employee A is mortified and goes home feeling undervalued and sad. When the team’s manager finds out and confronts the founder he says “Our employees don’t need to be coddled.”
What’s wrong with this picture? First of all, there seems to be a warped definition of what it means to be coddled vs ordinary, every day respect towards the people you work with. Second of all, what did the founder accomplish by his statement? Absolutely nothing good. It’s not like employee A will all of a sudden be motivated to try harder so that founder stops thinking she’s not as smart. No, she will be demotivated instead. Clearly, this founder doesn’t care about being liked, and that’s fine. What’s not fine is demeaning others in the process.
Try this instead: If you find yourself with a sudden urge to say something hurtful to an employee, just try to remember what grandma used to say: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Example 3: Receiving feedback & listening
This fonder was looking to fill a particular role for over six months. It took about three months of interviews to hire an employee to fill it. After all, the founder wanted to make sure he was hiring the right person. Three months in, the employee is burned out. She’s working six 15-hour days a week and it’s starting to affect her health. She’s not ready to throw in the towel so she puts together a plan of how she can restructure her work to continue doing a good job, but with less strain on her health. When she approaches the founder with her plan, the founder interrupts her, tells her to stop complaining, and reprimands her for being inflexible.
What’s wrong with this picture? Oh, boy, where do I start… Here we have a dedicated employee who’s giving a lot for the job and physically suffering for it. Instead of just walking away, the employee wants to make it work because she believes in the company. She does the thinking and the analysis of how she can make the situation better. She’s being proactive with a solution. Instead of acknowledging that something is wrong and working through the solution, the founder acts selfishly and unreasonably. The employee feels like she’s not being heard. If she stays, she will feel deflated. After all, her founder isn’t listening. In this case, the employee quit. This is not a winning situation even though the employee is out of a stressful job that was making her sick. The company is left with a hole to fill (one that took a long time to fill in the first place) and the employee lost her source of income.
Try this instead: Listen. Let the other person finish. Digest everything the employee is saying – maybe there is merit in the feedback. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Most of all, don’t react before you’ve had a chance to think.
It’s OK to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it
Theoretically speaking, none of the examples above are illegal, so theoretically speaking, these founders are doing nothing wrong. That is, no one is going to sue you for being an asshole. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be worried about the consequences of such behavior. We all have bad days and if you did one of things above once or twice, it sucks but we’ll all get over it. If you act this way systematically, however, it will demotivate your employees and you will probably lose them.
So try to be more aware of how you talk to people and make little changes that will make a big difference to the person on the receiving end.