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August 20, 2021

Conflict Avoidance is Dishonesty

It's really hard to tell the truth when the truth isn’t positive. Telling the truth requires recognition of risks, unresolved problems, and mistakes. Most failures in companies are of teams, not individuals, and the truth becomes even harder to say.

This is a tougher time than ever for startups to be truthful. We're in a massive reality distortion bubble, fuelled by yield-chasing capital inflows into tech. Companies who raise too much money before deploying a single customer are convincing themselves they have product-market fit. Even more extreme, they are anointed a rising star, a market leader before they have earned any revenue. The ability to convince the market of a story has real impacts (see thread on reflexivity) but it’s a tough high-wire act to stay ahead of a huge narrative, a narrative so bullish it hinges on dishonesty. Companies that drink too much of their own kool-aid then tend to, over time, be pressured into making promises they can’t keep, and at some point the music stops. Media-celebrated darlings suddenly collapse when the financial market realizes the emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, this will become more common, and common in companies that could have succeeded if they’d been more intellectually honest. 

Why are these failures a surprise? Didn’t everyone in the company, and the board, know?

They do know, but it’s really hard to say it out loud. Most people, especially in idealistic silicon valley, think they are honest. When asked questions, they don't lie directly about things that are important. But what if you asked a different set of questions? Do they speak the truth when they know:

  • the company isn't going to hit a revenue target?
  • there is a cultural problem?
  • the ship date is unrealistic? 
  • the initiative their team has been staffed on is a dead end?
  • they need to do a massive re-architecture?
  • customers don't want the product?
  • they’ve lost most of their executive team?
  • they're losing more often than not to competitors?
  • they’re on the wrong side of a secular trend?

In these cases, I think you're met with much more silence. You can hear it in the air in the (virtual) office, but no one will say it. "This isn't working."

I'm not talking about the people that are especially avoidant by personality. I'm talking about leaders failing to create team environments that mitigate everyone’s natural conflict avoidance. Humans are social creatures, and we want eachother to be happy. Conflict avoidance is a natural and useful instinct - if your tribe didn't like you, you didn't get food. But conflict avoidance is also a form of dishonesty, the most common form of dishonesty in business.

But conflict avoidance is also a form of dishonesty, the most common form of dishonesty in business.

The avoidance of hard truths assumes that an engineer who knows the company missed a quarter is going to bail for sunnier pastures, and it would be better to keep them in the dark until the problem has been solved.

The avoidance of hard truths is condescending, because the CEO and the people that work for her, in their heart of hearts, know the truth. They're smart enough to see the reality for themselves.

A few suggestions to inoculate your company against this form of naturally emergent dishonesty.

  1. Choose board members you trust. My first goal working with any company is to earn their trust, so that I can be under the tent having intellectually honest conversations, rather than being marketed to. Earning trust as a board member has a few basic prerequisites (do no harm, do what I say I’m going to do, don’t blow smoke up the CEO’s ass, don’t thrash/abandon a company when it hits a bump). An early board member who can hit these prereqs is in a structurally valuable spot: they are one of the only people who has context on the business, skin in the game, and doesn’t need to fear the CEO. They are uniquely empowered to be honest in their observations. When the CEO also feels the ability to be honest with the board, rather than continually hold up a mirage and then reconcile that mirage with the leadership and the company, it is a massive unburdening. Everyone can look at the same view -- reality.
  2. Tell the truth yourself, because everyone models the CEO. If the CEO isn't intellectually honest, no one wants to violate her narrative. The board and the CEO's job is not to cheerlead mindlessly, or to unburden employees from all the real problems of the business. That would be dishonest. Engage their creativity and task them with hard problems, it is the team’s purpose to help solve hard problems. Claiming responsibility for mistakes and reflecting on lessons learned, creates the space and safety for others to do the same. Being vulnerable is hard, but teams would rather follow a trustworthy CEO than a temporarily flawless one.
  3. To normalize constructive conflict, help teams see the costs of conflict avoidance. Keeping poor performers because a manager doesn’t want to fire someone forces high performers pick up the slack, and makes them unhappy. Employees who know a scary truth, but avoid speaking it end up stressed, resentful and disengaged. All the problems created by conflict avoidance are absorbed elsewhere -- failing to make a necessary roadmap trade-off just means the company will have to absorb missing the ship date later.
  4. Do longer-term planning. Often, a critical issue is avoided because it will take months, even years to really fix, and it gets drowned out against the drumbeat of quarterly goals. If a CEO demonstrates a willingness to “take the pain,” and make the tradeoffs to solve a bigger problem, the real needs of an organization will often emerge. If planning is done in increments that are too small to address a problem, the problem won’t bubble to the top. I am reminded of Jeff Weiner, who supported a feature freeze at Linkedin (a consumer company! at scale! impossible!) to navigate technical debt that had accumulated. Linkedin came out stronger from it.

There are the lies that losers tell themselves and one another, and then there are the hard truths that people naturally avoid. Plant the seeds for intellectual honesty early, and practice the habit of tuning out the external noise, because it’s only going to get noisier, and your company’s life depends on telling the truth.