A post about post-trauma. Startup post-trauma.
Editor’s note: I invited Yariv to write a piece for us knowing that trauma is an often-experienced yet little discussed phenomenon in startup culture. These insights weren’t around when I needed them years ago. What he crafted has opened my eyes, and I hope it will help others who find themselves in challenging situations.
Working in startups means dealing with a hefty workload alongside a high rate of alternating unforeseen events. Some of them will be cause for celebration, like securing an investment or landing a new client. Some will be worse (I’ll let you suggest your own examples here). At the bottom half of those are traumatic events—occurrences that can rock the foundations of a young company or dramatically shape its future.
It’s through this perspective that we can speak of trauma, an event where exposure can elicit a strong emotional reaction. Among individuals, it is often associated with sudden exposure to an immediate threat or an act of violence. In startups, it can be linked to failing a funding round, pivoting, change of executive management, or even toxic leadership. (All events that impact small and fragile organizations.)
Startups are expected to resist with their agility and adaptiveness to common business challenges. Yet occurrences such as those mentioned above can often lead to rifts among employees, install mistrust between cofounders or even threaten the very existence of a product or a team.
In startups, surviving major shocks is often undermined. But for founders, these experiences can have long term effects, generate unwanted memories, and increase anxiety or other distressing psychological conditions. In addition, they may lead to avoidance on a larger scale that can affect decision making.
Understanding the specifics of post-trauma among startups and founders can help individuals and organizations allocate the necessary resources to manage such an important predicament.
‘Business as Usual’ Always Overlooks the Unusual Here are a few strategies that startups use when dealing with traumas. Unfortunately, startup culture is focused on developing and creating, not healing. Dealing with the constant workload sets founders in a ‘doing’ mode. On the surface, this is productive, but it’s a double-edged sword when it comes to healing from traumatic occurrences. On one hand, it focuses the individual and the organization on the tasks that need to get done, directing all the attention to important duties in the present. On the other hand, it pushes aside the capability to process the event that has occurred.
For example, when a company has to lay off a significant number of employees, no matter the reason, it can’t disregard three truths:
the fact that the workload on each remaining employee is now greater,
that some of them may feel bad because they were kept, and their friends weren’t,
that a looming sensation persists for further changes to take place at the workplace—a worry that raises anxiety levels and reduces efficiency.
Quick and dramatic turnarounds are another unhealthy way to deal with startup traumas. Imagine a pivot or a merger process where founders and core team members alike are asked to forget what they’ve worked on since the startup’s foundation. In many cases, it’ll be an idea that they deeply believed in and still relate to. They may find it hard to suddenly swap it for a more commercial product or an implementation that they feel less secure or knowledgeable about. They often will deal with an internal conflict of values that can spur resentment, or have them reflect on how things were before, finding it difficult to agree with the new situation.
Restructuring is an organizational strategy that undoubtedly has its benefits. But when it comes to its psychological impacts, it is seldom perceived as a trauma, and more of a condition to which you ‘simply’ need to adjust. For many technical professionals, however, adjustment is an issue, whether due to a tendency to avoid ambiguity and react better to clearer and better-defined cues (for example programming code), an introverted personality style (a 2019 study found three developer-subgroups, two of which were defined as ‘intense’, and ‘antagonistic introvert’), or simply having a higher level of neuroticism.
Overcoming Startup Post-Trauma
It’s understandable why startup leaders and investors prefer to move on after a trauma occurs rather than let demoralization set the pace. But by doing so, they may just be laying the groundwork for the opposite to happen. Generally speaking, startup professionals are intelligent individuals with many qualities as well as personal issues, regardless of their profession. And since no two people react the same to a trauma, I recommend that company leaders adopt a more comprehensive approach.
Dealing with trauma shouldn’t be overlooked or sidetracked. Instead, it should be recognized and addressed as a major company milestone. Doing so will also convey a message of resilience, empathy, and accountability.
Employees and managers should be able to share concerns and freely express what they’re going through. HR professionals or therapists can be relevant, but so can designated superiors or, if the organization is innovation-oriented, one of many AI-based solutions. Of course, if major signs of distress appear, a trained professional would be the best person for a 1:1 consultation.
Founders need to acknowledge their emotional attachment to their company. All of the above is applicable for founders, too. However, there’s an important addition here. The sentimental engagement founders have with their startup is unique. In many ways, founders ‘parent’ their company and therefore for them overcoming trauma could be more complex than it may seem.
In the latter case, raising issues of personal responsibility, self-judgement and control is critical, as it is the backdrop for how the trauma is processed. Previous experiences are also key here, as they can indicate earlier events that were wrongly interpreted and possibly led to the current one.
A serial founder I worked with once, many years ago, suffered from social communication problems as well as an obsession with the idea of requiring key service providers to become members of his startup’s senior management. He viewed it as a way to ensure that their engagement would be higher. While the model did create short-term enthusiasm among providers, it eventually fell apart as there were too many people who came from different backgrounds and that were not accustomed to work within a startup culture. Moreover, they were engaged with an idea, not with the founder, with whom they had trouble communicating.
This was his strategy to avoid the trauma he suffered in two of his previous startups, when he noticed people were staying away from him, leaving him to lift the weight of the burden all alone.
As you might imagine, this story didn’t have a fairy tale ending. I often wonder if being more conscious and active about his post-traumatic behavior would have saved his company and his self-perception. The good news is that entrepreneurs can change their own trajectories and rewrite their personal narratives. The bad news is that there isn’t a shortcut or a hack; it involves doing the hard work of recognizing these underlying tendencies and confronting them with intention and empathy.
Yariv Ganor is a startup veteran-turned-startup psychologist, a psychotherapist specializing in addressing the unique needs of founders and core tech teams. He is based in Tel Aviv and is a contributor to Harvard Business Review.