Cofounder relationships are like all important relationships in your life- they require care, time, attention, and I believe skill, in order to maintain. Rupture and repair is the cycle we all experience with our functioning relationships. Humans are imperfect creatures. What we do and say or fail to do and say can hurt the people around us. That is rupture. It can be big or small. Frequent or infrequent. Implicit or explicit. Repairable and not repairable.
In the relationship of cycle of rupture and repair, there are three stances between cofounders: Facing each other, Chasing each other, and Quitting each other.
Facing each other: When people use phrases like “healthy conflict”, this is part of what I envision. It means when cofounders have a conflict, small or large, they bring it to the other and they deal with it. Dealing with it could be with a lot of relationship skill or not, but the point is it gets addressed. Nothing festers. Resentment does not grow. Rupture is repaired, the relationship is reaffirmed and cofounders continue on.
What this stance sounds like in startups: “Hey, I have something I need to talk about with you, is now a good time?” or “I hear your concern that [insert issue], let me take in your feedback and get back to you. Can we connect again tomorrow?” or the more direct but effect, “Hey, when [X] happened, that wasn’t cool. Can we talk about it?”
Chasing each other: In this stance, one partner withdraws from dealing with an issues or issues. The other cofounder tries to bring them up, and the more they do, the more the other cofounder retreats. Underneath the issue, the cofounder who is chasing really needs to be affirmed in the relationship while the cofounder being chased feels imposed upon or smothered. They play out old patterns that may or may not be in their awareness. The need to repair the rupture in the relationship becomes more desperate though still possible. The more one founder presses the issue, the more the other wants to run away from it. It’s a nasty amplification loop, and if it doesn’t stop either by the pursued founder turning and facing their cofounder or by outside intervention, it can lead to the last stance: giving up.
What this stance looks like in startups: A cofounder who emails their cofounder on Thursday about an issue and doesn’t get a response, then sends a slack to their cofounder on Friday about the same issue, still no response. They then call their cofounder on Saturday to try and talk about it but gets a voicemail. The other cofounder meanwhile avoids engaging on the issue hoping it will “blow over” or fade away, but instead the issue escalates until it or the pursuing cofounder does something that can’t be ignored.
Quitting each other: This is the last place two cofounder want to be. It’s difficult to repair relationships that end up here, though sometimes when one cofounder stops any attempts to address their issues, it jolts the other cofounder into turning towards the other thereby reversing who is chasing whom. If no one is seeking to repair, someone is ready to call it quits. If it’s the first time the cofounders seek help from mentors or from coaches, it’s usually too late. The trust is gone from the relationship, and it’s very difficult to rebuild at that point. The defining characteristic of cofounders at this stage is that neither of them has hope that the relationship can be repaired.
What this stance looks like in startups: Cofounders who don’t communicate often, exchanges are minimal and don’t include any sign of caring for the person. They might say, “I can’t work with [cofounder].” or “[Cofounder] is the problem.” Cofounders complain about the other cofounder to other people in ways that are not constructive and don’t seek to solve the issues.
Unfortunately, I know what it looks like when founders part ways. I have seen a few of them do it amicably with high integrity, but it’s rare. More typical is a downward spiral with decreasing amounts of trust. Cofounders start out facing each other, then chasing each other, then if they don’t repair, they give up and part ways.
Repair is as much a skill as much as it is a mindset. Repair requires a willingness to see and take responsibility for your part in the rupture. Not everyone wants to do that. That kind of responsibility can bring up Brene Brown’s negative emotion triad of guilt, shame and blame. (We all have a tendency amongst these three reactions to wrongdoing, if you’re curious, survey yourself here.) It’s not the fun part of relationships, but it is the work the deepens the grooves of your interlocking lives. Getting through the repair is the forging of steel. It can be brutal, but you’re stronger after if it doesn’t break you.
Being committed to repairing the cofounding relationship is being willing to see the layers of the relationship that aren’t visible on the surface, potentially not even in the other cofounder’s own awareness. The best cofounders I know deeply understand the patterns of their fellow founders. They know what triggers them and why. They know what it looks like when they aren’t doing well and they know what kind of help they need when they are having a really tough time. They know how to and want to repair the relationship when something happens between them. That’s part of what cofounders are, and that’s why it isn’t easy to just add one to the team. If I was looking for a cofounder, I wouldn’t be willing to call them one until I knew we could make it through a pretty good relationship rupture, and it’s repair.
Also published on Medium: https://medium.com/the-soul-of-startups/three-cofounder-stances-facing-chasing-and-quitting-33f5475d1b24