Growth

How to argue well so you can turn business conflicts into success

Emma Koehn /

The Business Experiment co-founders Shevonne Joyce (left) and Jemimah Ashleigh. Source: Supplied.

You’ve heard the stats: your business idea might be one in a million, but your chances of failure are still sky-high. If your operation doesn’t fall over entirely, you might still have a massive falling-out with your co-founder, or end up in court over the ownership of an idea. Pretty quickly, the vision of entrepreneurship starts to become nothing short of combat-heavy.

By all accounts, you can’t go through life as a company founder and not run into arguments. These fights are often with co-founders or management teams that are made up of your close friends and family. Given conflict is inevitable, how can you develop a blueprint so you engage in arguments as productively as possible? Here are three ideas.

Know fighting is inevitable, but don’t ignore success

Entrepreneurs Jemimah Ashleigh and Shevonne Joyce had known each other for more than two decades when they launched a project designed to give an audience a look at the “difficult stuff people don’t want to talk about” when running a business.

But Ashleigh says that while the duo had done the legwork to establish what their partnership would look like, they hadn’t talked enough about success.

Ashleigh runs jewellery business Tangs Design, while Joyce has a consultancy business for female entrepreneurs called Yellow Palomino. Together they launched The Business Experiment, a podcast and video series designed to start a conversation about the messier parts of being an entrepreneur. Ashleigh tells SmartCompany the duo went into the project wanting to talk about things like the inevitability of conflict in business relationships.

“I think the genuine concern with anyone in a partnership at all is that when you’re going into something with someone else, you have to have 100% trust, and sometimes there are hidden motivations,” Ashleigh says.

The pair were excited to start a conversation about the difficulties that emerge no matter what industry you’re in, and between them they have seen plenty of examples of what not to do.

“We’ve seen some pretty disastrous ones. Predominantly I would say ‘keep it off Facebook’,” Ashleigh says. “Like, I’ve seen someone come out on Facebook and say, ‘someone’s stolen money from me’.”

Having seen the pitfalls of public fighting, Ashleigh and Joyce set up dispute resolution measures for their own partnership early on.

“What happens if we disagree on something? Well, one of the things we said was that we’d take it to a third party,” Ashleigh says.

“You need to think about, ‘what does it look like if there’s a property [involved in the business]?’ Our agreement is 50-50, but every business owner is different. The other thing we did was look at where [each of us] have skills,” Ashleigh says. By dividing tasks for the podcast depending on where the founder’s talents lay, the workflow ran smoothly, she says.

However, The Business Experiment quickly became more than just a side project, and then another hurdle came up: the pair hadn’t planned for the success.

“One of the issues we had was that we only discussed what would happen if it didn’t work. What happens if it does work? We had to be really real about this,” she says.

With both co-founders having their own separate business interests already, it reached a point where they had to backtrack and revise how they would manage the day-to-day operations of the project.

“When we had that moment – we had more success than we’d planned … we had then really, really specific stuff on tasks coming in. We had the day-to-day operations part that we had to actually manage,” she says.

Have a plan for facing failures

Roadblocks are inevitable, but the experts say there are two key things you can do to ensure any conflicts with the people you work closest to are resolved as smoothly as possible.

The first is to avoid shutting down your emotional responses completely, and instead harness them to show empathy and understanding for those you are working with. As research from the US-based think tank Centre for Creative Leadership highlights, executives are more likely to hit a complete wall because they have difficulty handling change or employing emotional intelligence when facing difficult leadership decisions, than they are to fail to resolve issues because they are inexperienced.

The second is to manage your emotions with a structure, if you need one. While you might be personally or professionally close to someone, there’s a chance they will be a “high-conflict personality” that will never deal well with arguments themselves, no matter how equipped you are yourself.

In these circumstances, experts have previously told SmartCompany it’s worth going back to basics with a structured approach to dealing with any in-fighting. President of San Diego’s High Conflict Institute, Bill Eddy, explained last year that when dealing with “high conflict” personalities, one option is to employ the CARS method: responding to an argument by Connecting, Analysing, Responding and Setting Limits on the situation.

“Don’t try to give them an insight into themselves, they will not listen. Instead, you should focus very clearly on what the choices are in front of you right now. One of your choices when facing conflict is to just hang up the phone or walk away entirely,” Eddy said.

However, Ashleigh believes honesty and decisiveness can have just as positive effect on facing failures and disappointments with your co-founders. Earlier in 2017, The Business Experiment duo suffered a set back when a planned roadshow they were deep into organising had to be called off.

“We had a very public failing,” Ashleigh says.

“We had a lot of interest, but what had happened is that we had booked it for right after Christmas. We had a situation where lots of places close down for two, three, four weeks … weirdly nobody told us at the time.

“We really had to be very honest with what was happening — it’s never not worked out before. It was really, really difficult.

“We had to be honest about it. This is what happened, and we made the decision where we decided not to speak about what had happened and what that meant for us. The key bit is with any business, you are going to have hard conversations — acknowledge that they’re difficult.”

Others agree, with Burger Urge co-founder Sean Carthew telling Weekend Smarts it’s better to face the argument, and the challenge of it, before it starts affecting your productivity.

“You can’t fear conflict, you have to face it,” he says.

“I’ve found that its always best to talk it out with all relevant parties as disagreements will not resolve themselves and can, more often than not, escalate if they are not dealt with properly and quickly. A proactive approach can help save a lot of time and money.” 

Fight for the ideal situation

We hear plenty of talk about “company visions” when speaking to new businesses at StartupSmart and SmartCompany, and founders say understanding what their company should look like when it’s operating in line with its guiding principles can also help motivate you to resolve issues quickly and effectively.

Co-founder of Oz Property Group Raghav Goal tells SmartCompany that as his property development company has grown, challenging conversations about future expansion of the business have emerged.

“One of the biggest [topics] is what vision we have for the company in terms of expansion strategy,” Goal says.

“We tussle with whether we can expand without compromising our brand values. But probably, staying calm is the critical aspect, and always listening to the other side of the argument.”

Having started his company at the age of 19, Goal knows what it’s like to enter a meeting room and have to convince someone to take him seriously. From this he has developed an understanding of the importance of listening, which he employs in any workplace conflicts now.

“It’s just listening to the other side of the argument,” he says.

As for the values of the company, and its mission to be a socially responsible developer that fits into communities, Goal says the team tries to have visible reminders of the endgame everywhere. This also helps anchor any discussions about the future of the business.

“We’ve got [the values] written up anywhere you can see,” he says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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