Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, April 4, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Emotions are powerful. Strong ones can be frightening when experienced up close and personal, and in the business world, they can be extremely revealing about the team and its persistence in the face of adversity and looming darkness.
Sigal Barsade, Wharton professor, who recently passed away at the age of 56, has been a leading researcher on the role emotions play in our corporate lives. Her studies centered on organizational change and the “affective revolution” that explores loneliness, isolation, fear, compassion, happiness and contempt in the workplace.
One recent paper, “Which Matters More, Group Fear versus Hope in Entrepreneurial Escalation of Commitment,” focuses on the effect emotions have on shaping your company and when the storm arrives, which it invariably will, what role does friendship play in the commitment of your employees. Will they walk through walls, and if so, why?
We all know about fear. But how is that mitigated by friendship? A quarter of tech entrepreneurial ventures fail after one year, and more than half fail before five years. You might do better working for the post office — and they are going to run out of funding, just like your startup.
Barsade was interested in “pre-termination emotions” — the stuff that happens when you see the truck coming head-on, and you have to decide how long do you stay standing in the center of the road? She said “Friendship is important. That’s why people actually work together.” But are you willing to die for it?
I have a client; he is a co-founder. Together he and a friend start a company. After four years, he feels burned out and denigrated and demeaned by his partner. He is fed up. He is ready to resign. They have begun the fierce conversations, but has he waited too long?
It is possible with the exchange of powerful feelings and emotions they may both find detente and press on together. They may find the transparency, which might reignite their commitment. Barsade said, “Entrepreneurship is incredibly emotional; there is so much uncertainty.”
I am about to embark, once more into the abyss, on a new company. It will not change the world, and it won’t be a unicorn, but it might make a few lives better. It is focused on one of my favorite personal passions, the prison industrial complex, and the challenge of anti-recidivism; in other words, keeping my favorite felons from returning to prison.
At the moment, at the very beginning, the team members are all people whom I have known for several years, or they have come as their own tight group, having worked together before. The premise is passionate for them.
But we are at the very beginning. Bad stuff will show up. And gritting it out may irreparably fray friendships. “If people stick together just because they are friends, that doesn’t necessarily lead to the best results,” Barsade says.
Personally, in the past, I have occasionally let friendship get in the way of the hard conversation, of knowing that I need to quit the relationship, to slam the door and cut my losses. But like most of us, I wait too long or I concoct a hopeful fantasy that it will all work out. After all, tomorrow is another day.
I have been watching “The Dropout,” the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. I think if I were still teaching, I would make the series the textbook for a course in exactly what not to do to inspire people. No human emotion in her, bloodless (which sort of fits with her company).
So back to my co-founder client. He resigned, and the response from management was disappointing. “Can I make you a tuna fish sandwich on the way out the door?” And his response was “My lawyer prefers smoked salmon.”
Barsade found that friends who “persist hopefully, not hopelessly,” are more likely to find success. They persist because they care, not because they feel trapped.
The trick for the startup CEO is to allow for tears and fears, to balance friendship with purpose and to find a team that is passionate.
Holmes had that at the beginning, lots of Kool-Aid, but she trashed it, and in the end, there were no friends anywhere to be found.
Senturia is a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies.
Rule No. 707:
It’s OK to shed some tears.