Thursday, February 28, 2013

Startups Need Business Relationships Without Drama

business-feedbackEntrepreneurship is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every startup requires building and maintaining effective relationships with people, including partners, team members, customers, and investors. That means giving and asking for feedback, and learning from it, especially negative feedback.

“Friction” is feedback mixed with emotion or drama, making it all the more difficult to sort out the value. There should be no immediate assumption that one side is right, and the other is wrong. It may be an indication that one party isn’t giving the feedback well, or the other isn’t taking it well, or both. Both of these modes are wrong, and non-productive.

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs I talk to confess that they put off giving feedback because they are uncomfortable. Others tell me they can’t deal with friction or negative feedback, so they don’t listen. If feedback is so important, why is it often ignored? Let’s look at what causes friction, and how to prevent it, resulting in productive feedback:

  • Make your feedback “information”, not a judgment or evaluation. Words such as “good” or “bad” telegraph evaluation, on the quality of work or rightness of behavior. Label words, such as “careless” or “disloyal”, signal judgment about a person’s character. Most people don’t like judgments, so they respond with friction, rather than listening.
  • Descriptions in neutral language lead to recognition. People tend to keep listening and consider changing when they recognize themselves in non-confrontational descriptions of an actual event. When they can’t relate to the data, you will have friction or tune out. Stick to what you know and what you observed.
  • Secondhand feedback poisons the process. Too many entrepreneurs create friction by highlighting comments from other people. This stems from two problems. First, this he-said-she-said doesn’t include concrete examples and clarifications. Secondly, people become defensive when feedback is not first-hand.
  • Pick an appropriate time and place for feedback. Getting feedback in front of your peers, or when you are rushing to meet a deadline, is embarrassing and prone to friction. If you are trying to give feedback with privacy, and the person never has time to listen, that’s a different problem.
  • Feedback given at work should be only about work. Don’t mix observations about commitment and loyalty on work issues with observations about private relationship actions seen at a party or elsewhere. Again, stick to the facts you know, your personal observations, and avoid absolutes such as “always” and “never.”
  • Minimize the perceived power difference to facilitate listening. Feedback to top executives is more readily received from outside experts and mentors, rather than less experienced team members. Inversely, feedback to newer employees should be given by their direct manager, or even peers, rather than a top executive.

Not all feedback should be about things that need improvement. Everyone needs positive reinforcement on items and actions done well, and it opens their mind to any feedback without friction. In fact, most psychologists agree that people advance more rapidly by positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement.

We never see ourselves as other people see us. We see friction, and we react to friction, based on our standards, what we consider important, what we value, and what makes us uncomfortable. Understanding that, and understanding the triggers to friction outlined above, you as an entrepreneur need be able to deal with friction as the most important feedback of all.

Marty Zwilling



  1. Very interesting perspective and advice. I appreciate it. Thanks!

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