Great startup leaders embrace conflict and discomfort

We are comfort-seeking creatures; focusing on longer-term goals and outcomes does not come naturally to us. As a result, organisations are biased towards creating comfort rather than business value. This bias is particularly evident in teams with elongated feedback loops, like product and engineering, because it is difficult to connect their effort with delivered value.

For example, the engineering manager focused on growth and therefore concerned with delivery pace, measuring real product outcomes, and making increasingly ambitious commitments is rare and of massive value. Instead, many engineering leaders optimise for technical excellence, professional development, and employee satisfaction. While each of these outcomes is important, engineering leaders must know when to sacrifice them for progress. This goes against human nature.

Most people want to create a harmonious work life so they avoid conflict. When faced with choosing between a painful but fruitful approach to a problem and a harmonious approach that will only deliver a mediocre outcome, many choose mediocre harmony. This concession might be OK for low-stakes decisions, but if you avoid conflict at the critical junctures in your startup’s story, you’ll only achieve disappointing results.

Conflict avoidance is one of the most dangerous traits in a leader, especially a CEO, given most organisations tend to be rife with the conflict avoidance of others. Great CEOs create clarity and accountability to goals. Great CEOs force the tough conversations and decisions that move the company forward (even when the answer goes against the CEOs’ intuitions). Ineffective CEOs avoid conflict, allowing mediocrity to bloom. Ineffective CEOs add additional superfluous goals and distractions, prematurely diversifying the business. The same applies to any leader.

Should work not be comfortable? I think it should be fulfilling, enjoyable, and ergonomic1, but it shouldn’t be easy. It should be awkward, painful, and messy. Because awkwardness, pain, and mess are where fulfilment and meaningful achievement emerge from. Comfort may seem nice, but it is the enemy of progress.


  1. How I distinguish ergonomics from comfort: Ergonomics is about reducing unnecessary hurdles to make it easier (and healthier) to do the right thing; Comfort is about reducing all hurdles (including necessary ones) to avoid pain in the moment, sometimes at the expense of long-term satisfaction. ↩︎

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