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How to Fix the Co-Founder Fights You’re Sick of Having
I’m best known for being a couples therapist, for giving talks and writing about “romantic” topics, from sex and infidelity to intimacy and loss. At first glance, that may not seem relevant to tech entrepreneurs building the next big startup.
But ultimately, I work with pairs, in all their forms. And while marriages are complicated, business partnerships are even more so. The added pressures of courting investors, managing employees, speaking to the public and meeting the bottom-line add further strain to multilayered dynamics.
Few co-founder relationships survive the pressure — research shows that 65% of startups fail because of interpersonal tensions within the founding team. That’s why right alongside my therapy practice, I serve as something of a Chief Relationship Officer for companies and startups around the world. When they need to have a difficult conversation or a relationship tune-up in the corner office, they call me, just as a couple in the midst of a marital crisis might.
Over the past few decades, I’ve seen common themes across my clients: 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. And, for pairs of all types, some days it feels incredibly hard to achieve all of this.
Quality relationships are central to our quality of life and our business success. Yet our relational skills often struggle to keep up with rising expectations. That is why in my new podcast "How’s Work?" I meet with pairs from startups, corporations and family businesses to better understand the invisible forces that shape their connections — and consequently, their conflicts.
In addition to delving into intergenerational challenges, gender roles and remote work, we focus heavily on recurring conflicts and communication failures between co-founders, whether it’s a pair of entrepreneurs dealing with scar tissue from previous “breakups” or spouses trying to steel themselves against the ups and downs of startup life.
In this article, I’ll share some of my favorite techniques for getting to the root of recurring disagreements and tactics for navigating conflict in the heat of the moment.
Of course, not every team has gotten into well-worn grooves of disagreement just yet. If you’re trying to get to know a potential co-founder or are looking to fortify a new partnership from the start, download my guide below. I’ll share questions to ask each other and topics to think about before you team up with a friend or pair up with a perfect stranger.
CO-FOUNDER CONFLICTS: THE COVERT AND THE OVERT
Every relational impasse has covert and overt layers. That’s why when a pair of co-founders is stuck or in crisis, I often ask them to tell me about their last fight. But I’m not actually listening for the specific quarrels — I’m listening for how they fight and what it is that they trigger in each other. In many ways, the topics they’re fighting over don’t matter. What I’m looking for is the covert: What’s the hidden issue?
What are you really upset about? What does it represent for you? Where else have you experienced this? Questions like these allow us to dive into the bigger, meatier topics, instead of staying trapped in the small, everyday arguments.
Our overt arguments don’t matter as much as the broader themes that are underneath those plotlines. Tune out the noise of what you’re bickering over and dig deeper to find out what’s going on underneath the surface.
The two people in the room are not the only people involved in the conflict. Each of us comes to work with an unofficial relationship resume. We carry the histories of our past work relationships, as well as the ones that we grew up with at home.
If the fight is about who is putting in more effort, that might be rooted in the investor pressuring you for growth, the father demanding results or the successful brother who casts a long shadow. If one of the co-founders is accused of being a “control freak” who wants to be involved in every decision, perhaps it’s because she was screwed over before and is constantly on the lookout for fault in her partner, unable to build trust because she’s projecting the experience of another relationship instead of living in the present one.
When people say you should bring your whole self to work, my response is always this: You already do. But it’s in unconscious ways that you're not even aware of.
Issues and conflict will arise in every relationship. It’s unavoidable and, in fact, necessary. But the difference is that in healthy relationships, the deeper issue is recognized, and we work to chip away at it, moving from rupture to repair. In unhealthy, strained relationships, the issue is maintained and, as a result, exacerbated over time.
Here are some signs that the quarrels between you and your co-founder may be rooted in deeper, hidden issues:
- You keep having the same old fight. By the time they come to me, most co-founders are embroiled in cut-and-dried, rigid conversations with predictable paths and tired arguments. It’s the same old thing because everybody keeps doing the same thing.
- You think your co-founder is overreacting. Sometimes a co-founder will say something like, “All I said was that I don't agree with that decision and she totally lost it." When someone has an intense reaction that doesn’t seem to fit what just happened, it’s a clue that there’s more to this disagreement than what meets the eye.
- You’re not talking about the tough stuff. Repeated avoidance of a specific issue or problem in the company is a huge problem. I’ve seen relationships break down to the point where co-founders are barely communicating. Have you been patching over small cracks instead of making structural repairs to building a stronger foundation? If so, you may need to dig deeper.
WHAT LIES BENEATH: A FRAMEWORK FOR DECONSTRUCTING THE COVERT
When working with co-founding pairs, I often see three categories of hidden issues: power and control, care and closeness, and respect and recognition.
Below, I’ll unpack each of these categories and explain common “symptoms” so you can identify which one might apply to the tensions with your own co-founder. Once we recognize these unseen dynamics, we can learn to pick up the tools that will help us understand them, manage them and get started on the repairs.
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A word before we begin: These buckets of hidden issues come from the work of couples therapy researcher Howard Markman. They aren't cleanly siloed or neatly separated by labels. There’s overlap and issues often seep into each other. Think of these as a general framework to deconstruct your own conflicts.
1. 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.
Here are some scenarios I’ve run into while working with co-founders that illustrate deeper conflicts of power and control:
- A co-founder complains about how her counterpart hoards information or makes decisions unilaterally. When a power struggle boils up, who gets to make the decision is more important than the decision itself.
- One of the partners harbors ambivalence about the company’s success, which usually involves threatening to leave, or taking on secret side gigs that show he's not “all in.”
- Technical and non-technical co-founders argue over who is more essential to the company. Whether it’s the engineer building the product or the sales and marketing whiz running the business, these discussions about who’s working harder or adding more value often boil down to a question of who needs who more. “I can do this without you, but you can't do this without me" attitudes often pervade fights that fit into this category.
Blame and defense are the language of power and control. Instead of validating the other’s point of view, you become locked in a struggle where you don’t want to give the other person a leg up. It’s a constant all-or-nothing — accusations fly, and sentences start with “You’re wrong” or “You did this.” One person puts the other down in order to elevate themselves, maintaining their power and cementing their control.
Quick tip for defusing it:
The key is to notice and remove this belligerent language that escalates the conflict. Don’t start with how the other person is wrong, or even phrases such as “I feel that you…” because in practice, the word “that” generally leads to an assumption or a statement about the nature of the other person — and not a kind one.
To defuse a conflict rooted in power and control, start with your own reaction and make a statement that addresses the essential dynamic rather than the details.
Instead, speak about your own experience: “I feel sidelined” or even, “You ignored what I said and you went around my back.” “I do all the work and you make all the decisions.” It may not be pleasant, but by pointing out the power imbalance directly, both parties can sit with their perspective and work to resolve it rather than letting it escalate.
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.
I often ask co-founders this telling question: “What hurts you more? The fact that they did it in the first place — or that they did it without you?” The former is an issue of power, the latter is an issue of care and closeness.
If disagreements or tensions with your co-founder resemble any of the following anecdotes, you’re dealing with a hidden care and closeness issue:
- In a company with multiple co-founders, one founder feels rejected or excluded.
- One of the founders takes meetings on her own, even though her business partner wanted to be there.
- A founder feels like his input isn’t valued in the decision-making process.
- One co-founder levels accusations that the other is selfish.
- A co-founder fears that he will be edged out, that his fellow founder will hire someone else to replace him.
In a Season 1 episode of "How’s Work?" I meet with a pair of co-founders grappling with this last situation. They became friends in college and built a successful communications company together. Now, over a decade later, they’re barely speaking to each other. In our session, we got to the heart of their impasse when one of them offered up this statement: “When I was running the show and you were kind of secondary, I included you in everything. And now that it's your turn at the helm, instead of valuing our friendship, you're trying to inch me out.”
This line was incredibly powerful — many of the co-founders I’ve worked with have described that exact same sensation and fear to me. This is care and closeness in a nutshell.
Quick tip for defusing it:
I find the most useful thing to do when you're dealing with issues of care and closeness is to practice the basic steps of reflective listening: Acknowledge, validate and empathize. Start by acknowledging that what the other person said makes sense. Reflect back, don’t rebut. And if you’re ready to go further, empathize by sharing that you wouldn’t like to feel that way either.
We often bang our drum over and over about something that upsets us and, typically, the other person will tell you why your point is invalid. But if you own what they’re complaining about by saying, "I know I do this,” then you take it out of their hands. They don’t have to keep standing there waving their flag and insisting that they’re right. And once you take responsibility for your role, other people can begin to talk about what they bring to the dynamic.
Co-founders fight about care and closeness because they want to feel that they matter. A simple “I can see where you’re coming from” can be deeply validating.
3. Respect and recognition
Conflicts rooted in respect and recognition can frequently be traced back to questions of integrity and self-worth: 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?
Here are some symptoms that respect and recognition issues may be playing out in your co-founder relationship:
- One of the co-founders routinely takes credit for team efforts.
- When it comes time for budget planning one co-founder routinely questions the need for projects and staff overseen by the other, or implies they could be cut with minimal business impact.
- A co-founder never gives praise, only hands out criticism.
- When the splashy press coverage of the company gets written up, one co-founder gets all the attention while the others are barely mentioned.
With co-founders, often one person becomes a de facto CEO, serving as the face of the company. Sometimes it's taken in stride because the other co-founder and executives are perfectly happy to take on other important roles. But sometimes there's resentment brewing behind the scenes. This is because respect and recognition have a lot to do with symbolism.
I recently worked with a design firm where the CEO did a big interview and photoshoot, posing under the company logo. His two co-founders were furious and saw it as a complete betrayal. While they understood that the CEO’s role is to generate press, they felt the photoshoot sent the wrong message to the world — as if they had been erased from existence.
Conflicts rooted in respect and recognition deal with our self-worth — and that’s why they sting.
Quick tip for defusing it:
If you’ve identified respect and recognition as the source of conflict on the founding team, the party that is taking the credit often needs to initiate the reset. This means taking every opportunity you can to dispel the myth of the lone genius. Every time you say, "I've done" in an interview or speech, consider these options instead:
- We've done
- With the help of my colleagues
- My work sits on the shoulders of others’ work
When your co-founder levels an accusation that’s rooted in an issue of respect and recognition, pause and see if you can recognize the validity of their reaction. A simple “I see why you took it this way" can go quite far. An even bigger step? Admitting to hogging the megaphone and taking the credit or undervaluing their contributions.
Founders will sometimes say things like “I didn’t mean to do that,” but frankly, it’s b.s. Maybe the credit taker doesn't mean to make the team feel bad — but they do mean to put themselves in the spotlight. Owning your piece, and taking steps to see how it impacts your co-founders, is critical to stopping the cycle of disrespect and devaluation.
IMPROVING OVERT CONFLICT MANAGEMENT: SIX PRACTICAL TIPS FOR CLEANING UP YOUR FIGHTS
With these deeper issues identified and out in the open, you’ll still find yourself facing conflict on occasion — and when we disagree or try to give negative feedback, we often resort to our very worst impulses. This tendency puts us at risk of turning small spats into full-on warfare.
For the everyday battles, here are six practical tips for navigating conflict in a healthier way — and defusing it where possible:
1. Pay attention to what’s working. To break out of a negative mindset — constantly looking for faults and flaws — start keeping a daily list of all the positive things your co-founder does. What do they do for the company that you appreciate? What can you be thankful for? What would you be unable to accomplish without them? Elevate what they’re getting right, instead of focusing on what they’re getting wrong or what’s annoying you. Make this list for a full week,
2. Don’t throw the kitchen sink at it. Piling on every complaint is a typical — but not at all useful — approach to dealing with conflict. It’s how your co-founder showing up late for a meeting can escalate into a yelling match on how they aren’t pulling their weight. It’s the idea that when a fight starts, I’ll throw in everything I’ve been holding against you. By the end we’ll have no idea what we’re actually fighting about anymore. Instead, when you have a problem, deal with that problem only. Don’t start talking about the last three years of everything you’ve been through. Focus on fixing one issue at a time.
3. Avoid character assassination. A close relative of negative attribution theory: If I do something wrong, it’s circumstantial and tied to a situation. But if my co-founder does the same, I peg it to their character and what it says about them as a person. For example: If I'm running late it’s because I got stuck in traffic. If they arrive late, they’re not invested enough in the company and don’t prioritize our relationship. Skip these types of fights by thinking about temporary and circumstantial explanations for your co-founder's behavior as you do for your own, as often as you can.
4. Figure out if you fight, flight or freeze. We all handle conflict differently. Some folks are explosive and lash out, while others retreat inward and withdraw. There's often a contrast between the pursuer and the distancer. What makes it more difficult it that the one who is attacking intensifies the withdrawal of the other person and vice versa. This is the idea that the more quiet and tight-lipped you become, the more the other person is going to ratchet it up and get mad because you haven't said a word in 10 minutes. To put it another way, if you build a bigger wall, that may make your co-founder bring out a bigger bazooka to knock it down. Understand your respective conflict management styles and have a conversation about them before the next skirmish breaks out so you can better co-regulate.
5. Stop talking in categoricals. Statements such as “You always” or “You never” should be stripped out of your vocabulary. We have a tendency to confuse our experiences and feelings with facts. You present the accusation as a fact, but it’s really just an expression of your experience. The other person will be at the ready to refute with one contrary example, just to prove you’re missing the mark. Instead, say, “You probably don’t, but in this moment it feels like you do this all the time.”
6. Start the 10 second shot clock. Howard Markman’s Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) research highlights that when people are in conflict, they don’t listen to more than 10 seconds of someone’s argument before they start building their rebuttal. You could rattle off an entire list of issues of which there's a dozen complaints that are perfectly acceptable. But your co-founder will push back on the one thing that they can disagree with, invalidating everything else you said. Instead, try to keep it short. Then pause. Then ask them to reflect back to you what you just said.
COMING TOGETHER TO MAKE A BUSINESS AND MAKE MEANING
As HR pro Netta Nahum says, in today’s workplace we’re not seeking “what we’re going to do next,” but rather we’re looking for “who we’re going to be next.” Getting the co-founder relationship right is about ensuring your company thrives — and it’s also interwoven with your sense of meaning and identity.
So when you look at Q1 priorities, fundraising strategies, key projects and new hires, pause for a moment to think about the relationship you’ve established with each other. In the hectic pace of the everyday, it may seem hard to carve out dedicated time to focus on relationships. But conflict is what happens when the relationship has been exasperated to the extreme — if you and your co-founder want to protect what you’re building, don’t avoid tough topics or wait until tensions boil over.
The health of the co-founder relationship is the KPI that no one seems to be tracking, even though it’s inextricably tied to company performance.
To get proactive, look for ways to build the positive and chip away at the core issues. Avoid devolving into a debate over which one doesn't need the other and instead focus on how you complement one another. Some of the things you see will be positive, and others will give you insights into how you need to change your own behavior to improve the dynamic. Remember that the very same traits which annoy you now were likely once traits that you were drawn to and look for ways you can begin changing the dynamics that no longer serve you.
By the time most pairs come to see me, they're experts in what’s wrong with their co-founder — and they want me to fix it. But if you feel like something isn’t working in your co-founder dynamic, before you dig into the list of things you want to change about the other, I suggest:
- First, think about what they’re taking off your plate. The only reason that you can constantly think about growth or product is because you have another person who’s handling all of the stuff that you're not thinking about. If they didn't worry about these things, then they would be on your plate too. Have you ever thanked your co-founder for taking on the work outside of your role?
- Second, if you still think they need to do less of X, see where you’re feeding into the dynamic by doing Y. If you want them to take fewer risks, you have to take a step back and give them the space to evaluate the risk for themselves. If you want them to step up, you need to take on less.
The truth is that we co-create each other. Relationships are feedback loops. And a person isn't just who they are. That same person paired up with somebody else may act entirely different.
If this all seems like a lot of bite off alone, ask yourselves whether a coach or a therapist could come in handy. You and your co-founder have a board of advisors that helps you think through fundraising tactics, resource management decisions and strategic pivots. Why not add an advisor who can also help you stay connected to one another and the company? Seek out a third-party who can hold you accountable and keep your foot on the pedal when change feels tough.
Relationships aren’t static. They ebb and flow, cycling through harmony, disharmony and repair. There are always breaks and strains in the form of conflict, but there are also ways to mend those cracks. As you seek improvements in your relationship, you’ll see that how you treat each other as founders ripples out into the rest of the company and seeps into the culture.
You’ll begin to give your team better cues on how to fight, how to respect each other, how to get along and how to manage the inherent tensions that come with complementarity. And that is where improving the co-founder relationship starts to bolster the bottom line.
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