Startup Psychology: Why Awareness Is Awesome

Written By: Dharmesh Shah October 24, 2012

The following is a guest post from Dr. Jared Scherz, founder at UFeud, LLC, creators of, uframe, and uscore technologies.

As a well educated psychologist with a successful practice, the decision to launch a startup tech company tested the boundaries of my sense of self confidence and competence, as I was venturing into a field I knew little about. It was embarrassing to have to tell people on a somewhat regular basis that I didn't really know what I was doing. So how do I feel about that?' One day I'm plagued by self doubt and the next I'm feeling more confident because I figured something out. The excitement of a potentially lucrative new venture was tempered by the anxiety of self doubt and fear of the unknown. A destructive cycle of confidence and self doubt can develop as a result, and can wear out even the most resilient of people if not recognized so the pattern can change.mirror illusion

To help me climb out of this spin cycle is being able to identify and own my experience. Knowing what I'm feeling and how it influences my behavior or decision making is key to managing this dichotomy. This (internal) awareness helps reduce the chances of letting these unpleasant feelings translate into actions that require more energy and time to correct. If I know what I'm feeling and why, I can differentiate between what is my stuff and what is an organizational matter.

“I think I deserve more shares”: Let's use conflict with a co-founder as an example. The idea of a partner wanting to renegotiate their terms can be a major pitfall that sinks a startup, according to Noam Wasserman (The Founder's Dilemmas). This dilemma is common because we don't know well enough the contributions of each partner early in the project, and roles often change throughout the process. When a partner believes they are contributing more and their worth has increased, they may naturally want more equity and recognition.

Our initial response may be rigidity. Tensing up and digging in our heels, justifying our defensiveness as our partner's misdirected priorities. How dare they focus on greed as opposed to the company? Aren't they a team player? Why are they willing to sabotage everything we have been working toward? Then we ask ourselves the question, why does this feel like a betrayal? What's being evoked may be a loss of control or a feeling of fear that we are losing our grip on the company. Perhaps we lose trust in our partner, conjuring up all the times we have been let down by somebody in the past.

A startup is like a newly hatched chick, small and vulnerable to prey. Why can't I protect and control this entity I've worked so hard to create? After all, nobody was there at 3:00 am when I came up with the idea. (If they were, they probably could have shamed me out of that celebratory bowl of chocolate ice cream).

Paying attention to our experience will help us in a few different ways. We will have greater empathy towards our partner, allowing them to feel heard. Once your partner feels understood, they aren't going to put on a full court press to back you into a corner. Paying attention to our experience also allows us to separate past issues versus current ones. I'm aware that my partner is just nervous about all the extra work they are doing and they aren't like my ex-girlfriend who slept with my best friend in high school.

Expanding our self awareness helps with everyday interactions — not just the high intensity ones. Take a situation in which your programmers aren't following through on tasks with the alacrity they did when excitement in the project was higher. Aggravation can easily set in and snippiness can follow. We get on their case, which in turn causes resentment on their part and even slower responsiveness. Or, we can utilize our growing awareness and realize that we are being driven by fear.

In this scenario we add on a new level of awareness, which is external. Now instead of looking inward we are scanning our environment to pick up clues on what may be happening with others or even systems. In the example given above, our programmers may be feeling disconnected from the organization. They don't see all the effort going into marketing or how the sales team is getting positive feedback from the clients. All they hear is what isn't working and how they need to work faster. Their initial excitement has diminished and their frustration level is growing, hence their slowing response time. So getting on their case may work temporarily but in the long run it can create more chronic indifference.

Now that we have scanned our environment and determined that they are feeling detached and discouraged. We integrate this new information with our own heightened awareness and devise a more intentional response which serves both sides better.

Awareness is more complex then we realize it to be. It involves scanning both our internal and external environments to determine the impact we are having on others and others are having on us. Most situations that can be handled in a way that promotes cohesiveness on our teams can turn into disasters if we aren't using our awareness. A startup CEO with a high level of awareness will influence their organization in profound ways, most importantly helping the startup to become adaptive.

An adaptive organization as described by Eric Ries (The Lean Startup), is one in which the team uses data to learn and grow. Ries bases his concept on a validated learning approach that allows a company to measure their efforts and then pivot accordingly. What is also important in addition to learning from how our product is responded to, are the processes which exist among our team. Awareness is the key to understanding our own responses, the behaviors of our team, and the way in which different parts of the organization work together to form a whole.

Startups that don't prioritize adaptation are more prone to making mistakes and repeating these mistakes which can easily become maladaptive patterns. Getting excited after days of self-doubt and then making impulsive decisions without enough information is just the type of pattern that can be prevented with greater awareness. Adaptation is the direct result of scanning our environment and making changes based on the information obtained in a timely manner.

There are quite a few obstacles to improving one's awareness. The first is a CEO who is highly intelligent. Sound strange? Intelligent people tend to over-think and analyze. Awareness isn't about figuring things out with your mind; it's about using your body or more specifically your senses. Ask yourself what you feel in your gut, where you are holding tension, or what memories are being evoked.

Another obstacle is our resistance to giving up control. My startup is a product of a great idea, a tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice, and we aren't about to see it decimated by apathy or greed. Remember that others may not feel the same passion as you do but they can be helped to take greater ownership if they know their feelings are valued. Taking time to scan others experience and verbalize what you imagine them to be feeling will go a long way toward building loyalty.

So take a moment and step back before reacting to people or situations. Ask yourself what is going on inside you to trigger your feelings. Consider what is driving the actions or inactions of others around you. Scan the team to see how people are working together and what the underlying causes are for problems. Base your responses on what emerges through your awareness to prevent impulsive decision making. As the CEO you are responsible for attending to the processes of your startup, not simply executing a wonderful product or service.

What do you think? Have you tried deliberately increasing your awareness — internal or external?  

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