Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Startups Can’t Survive With ‘Downers’ on the Team

downerA “downer” is defined here as someone who seems to dwell on the negatives of every business challenge, and loves to highlight bad news or potential problems. No matter how smart or experienced this person may otherwise be, things must change or they will kill your startup.

I’m not talking about someone who has an occasional bad day, but rather people who when asked, “How are things?” will proceed to give you a 20-minute dissertation on their latest health symptoms, the latest company problem, and the sad state of the world in general.

This brings down the mood of everyone around them, and often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all know this kind of person, but they never seem to recognize themselves. So here are a few clues that you can look for in yourself, to see if you slipping into this abyss:

  • “It’s just another long day at work.” You can’t remember the last time you were positively excited by something you did at work, or even in your personal life. Your brain has leveled all events and activities into a desert of sand dunes, where just getting from one to another is a struggle, and there is nothing new to see over the next hill.
  • “I’m always tired or stressed out.” You may know this, but you assume that it’s not obvious to anyone else. Yet, think of your own office, you noticed on the first day those people that speak slowly in a low monotone, walk or sit with their head down most of the time, and rarely contribute anything without being asked.
  • “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” This can happen to business executives, once able leaders, who have spent too many years doing the same job. They know their processes and team aren’t perfect, but they no longer notice these imperfections. They are bored, or no longer interested in improvement opportunities.

If you recognize yourself in these points, or you feel yourself slipping in that direction, what can you do to turn yourself around before the company pushes you out, or a competitor pushes your company out? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get a medical checkup. You may be fighting a health problem that can be easily solved by proper treatment or medication. Even more severe medical problems, like chronic depression, can be mitigated once they are recognized and understood.
  • Change your environment. Ask for a new assignment at work, or look for a new job before you are fired from this one. Make a concerted effort to wake yourself up to the positives, and re-engage in processes that once excited you. Start a log on your efforts and progress. Measurable progress is itself exciting.
  • Ask a mentor for support. Choose a friend or mentor (not your spouse) whom you trust to tell you the truth, and ask for help. Then listen to the recommendations. These people can’t change you, but you can change yourself. Focus on identifying strengths, and capitalizing on them.

Let me assure you, every startup faces more challenges than any other business – unproven product, new processes, new management, and unpredictable customers. This is not the place for downers. If you are a downer, find a new place to work. If you run the startup, and you don’t deal with this issue quickly, your fledgling business is in jeopardy.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that these points are so obvious that they don’t need to be reiterated here. Yet I still find this to be one of the most common drags on startup productivity, as well as employee satisfaction. Remember that being a downer is not something that someone did to you; it’s something that you did to yourself. Therefore, it’s up to you to fix it.

Marty Zwilling


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