Sujith Jay Nair Thinking Aloud

An Early Employee's Field Guide to Workplace Arguments

TL; DR Conflicts are common in an early-stage startup. This post lists a set of mental models an early employee can use to prevent, judge, diffuse and take leverage of conflicts.


Every startup takes pride in its team. In many cases, the team is the only edge a startup possesses and needs. Peter Thiel defines a startup team as the largest collection of people who are privy to an important, contrarian truth. And this team has a shared passion to prove the value of the contrarian truth to the world (and capture some of that value, as they go).

Literature abounds on how to bring such a dream team together, and although still an imperfect science at best, mental frameworks do exist to guide a founder to assemble a passionate core-team. What is missing is a how-to on keeping your core-team together as a cohesive, high-functioning unit. Consider this post to be the first in a series exploring that idea.

Herding Cats

The thing about early employees nobody mentions is they are eccentric. There, I said it! Unconventional at best, maladaptive at worst. But that is why they are here. To prove the world wrong about an important truth. To see a future very few dare imagine. With an unprincipled, yet definite, optimism about themselves, and the world in general.

Such personality traits make it difficult, nigh impossible, to work in cohesion with similarly strong-minded, vocal people. The shared passion does douse the fire (ironic!); but opinions do diverge, arguments do arise, and conflicts do happen. And all of these will (and should?) happen more often not. Because ‘if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’.

Lesson number one in keeping your genius team together is learning to resolve and accept conflicts. Conflict management within startups does not fall squarely on the founders’ shoulders. Early employees are invested in it to a degree where they need to take corrective measures as well. The idea of this post is to provide a set of mental models (wrapped as commandments) to help you deal with conflicts.

In the first post, I will focus on the models an early employee can use to prevent, judge, diffuse and take leverage of such situations. Subsequent posts in this series will focus on other stakeholders in a startup. (The mental models I suggest are abstract enough to hold sway even in circumstances outside of a startup. Also, I expect a strong degree of overlap between the mental models for each set of stakeholders.)

I reiterate here that the theme of this post is not to discourage people from engaging in arguments, but to help them do it better.

I will teach thee what thou shalt do

Before we begin exploring the core ideas, a small side-note on the presentation style. Commandments are a peculiar way of presenting mental models. Mental models are frameworks to make sense of the world as a free-thinker. Commandments, in their traditional sense, are directives with little scope for free thinking. Still, I believe framing mental models in an imperative fashion adds to its recall value. Who doesn’t love a good catchphrase? So, here we go.

You are not your idea

Argumentum ad hominem is a well-known logical fallacy wherein a statement is argued against by questioning the motive or character of the entity making the statement, rather than questioning the substance of the statement. This fallacy, in spite of being easy to identify, is well-entrenched in our rationale. I have seen myself use it often inadvertently, only to identify it as such in retrospect.

However, here I make a case for its converse. Because this logical fallacy is so entrenched in us, we have a tendency to see it where it does not exist. Every attack on your idea, whether substantial or not, is seen as a personal attack. Rejection of an idea is perceived as a rejection of your entire, unique school of thought. Our ideas are core to our self-identity, and it is particularly painful to detach ourselves from it. However, it is important to consider counter-arguments with objectivity if you wish to gain from the argument. You are not your idea.

Praise in public, criticize in private

This is from Management 101, or even Parenting 101. The fact is when you share specifically what a team-mate did great and why you think it is admirable, it has more meaning to them and reinforces the behaviour in the larger team. The person is incentivized to continue the work, and encourage others in the same path. Classic feed-forward behaviour. And it works for you; you are viewed as genuine and downright cool.

On the other hand, private criticism is about being kind. As we will see in ‘Don’t be an asshole’, nobody works well with (you guessed it!) an asshole. Private criticism is also about correcting behaviours without pushing people into being defensive. The greater good lies in subtle course-correction, than in a public slugfest.

Don’t be an asshole

Robert I. Sutton penned a popular essay “More Trouble Than They’re Worth” in which he talks about “The No Asshole Rule” (This was later the title of his book based on the essay). The theme, which must be already apparent, is that toxic employees are detrimental to an organization in the long run, irrespective of their perceived value as an individual contributor.

Assholes abound, within the workplace and without; and it’s certainly not hard to identify them. A simple litmus test is mentioned in the book:

  1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?

Simple enough; because it is based on how another person makes you feel. But it’s hard to identify yourself as one. Who likes to call themselves a jerk? But, as Prof. Sutton says in his essay, ‘assholes are us’. Everyone of us can be blamed for that behaviour at some point. The idea is to reflect and identify instances when you have been one, and correct yourself. Easier said than done. A simple trick I use is to note my behaviour when I am in a group where I feel far superior than the rest. If you act like a jerk in such a setting, chances are you are one. Don’t be one.

Give credit

Andy Grove talks about the proverbial Japanese company in which every employee is seated around a single table. I like to think of this, in the context of a startup, as every one ‘having a seat at the table’; in other words, every one having both the influence and power to make decisions and effect change. What this also entails is that a team of early employees is a flat hierarchy with near-complete visibility.

But complete visibility does not mean that you do not credit people for their ideas or their contributions. The fallacy here is in thinking that it is already public knowledge. As described in ‘Praise in public, criticize in private’, there are immense benefits to public credit. But more so, it is good practice to attribute ideas to its rightful owners even in conversations not involving the original owner. It will help your team now; and it will help your team more when they no longer fit around a single table, or even a single campus.

You are not your team

Even pint-sized organizations are divided into functional teams. Engineering, Sales, Operations divisions are among the common functional working groups you come across in tech startups. Conflict within startups are not always inter-personal; functional teams engage in arguments regarding product and company direction, primacy of their team’s objectives and a host of other issues. In a way, such arguments thrust the organization forward (sometimes in a direction you, as a member of a particular working group, do not personally favour).

On the other hand, as early employees, everyone in the core team has a personal equation with every other member in it, across functional divides. This personal equation is fostered by the previously stated shared sense of definite optimism and passion.

When teams cross swords, you would see yourself pulled into the argument and forming a judgmental opinion about the other team and its members. I believe there is no harm in forming such opinions about the opposing team because they form the basis of your team’s rivalry with the other. However, you should check yourself from forming opinions on the members of the other team. Teams could have orthogonal directions within the organization; employees do not. At the personal level, your shared passion should be the defining aspect of your relation with co-workers. You are not your team.

Call them stupid, not evil

Hanlon’s razor is a heuristic guide to eliminating unlikely explanations for a person’s behaviour. In the plainest words, it states, ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.’.

In many scenarios, the first instinct when trying to ascertain an opposing person’s behaviour (particularly when that behaviour is seen as detrimental to your objectives) is to attribute it to the person’s intentions. This fits our rhetoric since that person (or team) is already viewed as an adversary. This may not be true. Malice and trickery are far less frequent than stupidity and neglect. Attributing malice, where none existed, only leads to sour relations and absurd confusions. In short, call them stupid, not evil.


I do not believe this to be a comprehensive list, nor a coherent one. I think of these commandments as a work in progress, at best. Subsequent posts will look at conflicts within a startup from the perspective of other stakeholders. Still more posts will explore the underlying theme of how culture trumps strategy. You can find them here.