Startup Rollercoasters: Communication for Leaders

We’ve all heard about the “rollercoaster” of startups, and it seems like these rides were upgraded to be a bit more… loopy in the past couple of years. For some leaders, this is a constant point of worry and discomfort with their teams. How much should they say? How direct should they be? But what if there was a way to navigate these turbulent ups and downs, fostering transparency and trust while keeping the team focused and motivated? Read on to discover how to strike the perfect balance and turn startup rollercoasters into smooth, steady rides (at least as far as communication is concerned).

The Whole Truth

First, let’s be clear about something. Keeping everything bottled can be devastating for your mental health. I’ve recently spoken with several CEOs dealing with repeated anxiety attacks. Therefore, you should have those with whom you can confide without any filters. If you’re a founder, hopefully, you have this sort of relationship with your cofounders.

Nevertheless, you should equip yourself with additional circles of support. Not only do those come in handy in general for your well-being and personal growth, but they will allow you to speak up without fearing the other person has any other interests. For example, consider joining an executive community or getting a coach or advisor (like me). Now, with the rest of your team, you should be telling the truth, but not really all of it. Let’s discuss that.

Why Be Candid?

Sometimes my clients object to the notion of increasing the transparency with their team. They might say things like, “Employees are more risk averse,” “It might spook them too much,” or “They won’t understand that’s how things are.” I understand, but I believe there are tangible benefits you should consider:

  • It is easier. Attempting to maintain a facade that “everything’s fine” 24/7 with everyone is going to wear you down fast.
  • People aren’t stupid. Even if you were to attempt to create such a facade, your smarter employees would pick up on the fact that you’re hiding something. And when they’re not told what the real thing is, they will often assume something even worse.
  • You’ll get more help. After all, if there are more people you can consult with, you increase the odds of someone coming up with a better way of handling the issues.
  • They’ll have a better context. When people understand the bigger picture, they can make better decisions in their day-to-day work, even when there is no major crisis. As you describe in my upcoming book, Capitalizing Your Technology (subscribe below to get a free sample chapter in a couple of weeks!), the most impactful engineering teams I’ve seen were those where people had product mastery and a genuine understanding of the business and its needs.
  • Being real. We’ll discuss next how to deliver the updates in a way that’s less likely to startle people, but you have to tell people what’s going on. If you fear they’ll leave, they might leave anyway, as described earlier, but when you speak to them, you have the ability to help them understand the context. At the end of the day, you wouldn’t want to have people stay just because they’re unaware of information that would’ve made them leave had they known it. Right?

Smoothing the Wave

Now, how do we share things with people in a way that won’t scare them to the point where they won’t be able to work? Suppose we imagine the “startup rollercoaster” is a waveform. In that case, we can do some elementary signal processing to try and smooth it out (and I’m sorry if I’m using some terms wrong. It’s been a while since my basic signal training).

First, start by considering the fact that each person might benefit from a different level of directness. Some of your more senior people might be veterans in startups and could “handle the truth,” whereas others might prefer something different. Therefore, you can plainly ask people what they feel comfortable with or experiment and see whether someone is disturbed by the “news stream.”

Next, we want to employ two wave manipulation techniques. The first is normalization: we want to make the rollercoaster less “jagged” by lowering the highs and raising the lows. That means that even when you hear something terrific, you contain yourself and say things seem positive, but as every business owner knows, we don’t celebrate before the check clears. In contrast, not every crisis will directly lead to the company getting closed. Working with founders, I often see how one day they’re entirely consumed with something that might happen and be a catastrophe, but when I ask them about it a week later, they actually need a second to remember what it was all about. Things move fast, and most things aren’t the cause of mass extinction. Thus, normalization will make things seem less extreme to people.

The other addition to your toolbox should be more like “debouncing.” This means we filter information so we don’t “trigger” too many events. You might have come across this term from software engineering when we want to make sure a button cannot be pressed too many times in a row or as a way to perform rate limiting. When we debounce in communication, we make the rollercoaster wave appear less noisy. What does this mean in real life? That while you might rush and confide with your coach about things right after they happen (cue my sometimes overwhelmed Slack), that doesn’t have to be the case with everyone else.

Some things seem more frightening initially but then get cleared up. Others happen in “batches,” so if you wait a few hours or a day, you might aggregate it. That way, you’re still getting the benefits described earlier, but you’re not as disruptive of others’ daily work and providing a better signal-to-noise ratio.

In conclusion, you can build a strong, resilient team by keeping it real and tweaking your communication with normalization and debouncing techniques. Embrace these strategies to level up your startup game and crush it together.