6 Ways to Overcome Startup Growing Pains

Dave Sloan

Founder of BigTalker and Udemy for Business instructor

December 13, 2017

Companies, particularly fast-growing startups, struggle with the complexity of team dynamics. Humans are complicated. Emotions and personality conflicts disrupt team cohesion and productivity. Internal conflict is often inevitable, without targeted soft skills training. In fact, according to a study by Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams report they are dysfunctional. So how can you avoid common startup growing pains when it comes to team dynamics?

Identifying teamwork issues at work

Many startup companies can pinpoint common problems, but they aren’t sure how to take action. Based on BigTalker’s extensive training work with startup clients, here are common organizational challenges or themes that we’ve observed at high-growth companies.

  • Culture risks: Lack of psychological safety among teams, which stifles creativity and contribution. This leads to a lack of trust and respect among teammates.

  • Immaturity: Limited self-awareness, professional presence, and self-regulation are common among a younger startup workforce. For example, one of our startup clients shared, “Our new hires have historically been very intelligent and capable, but have struggled to reach peak performance in a self-driven environment. They need some ‘adulting.'”

  • Stress: Burnout, distraction, lack of self-care, and limited patience with teammates are other problems that damage engagement and morale. “We have an employee whose behavior is toxic and morale is at an all-time low,” indicated a startup client.

  • Emotional Intelligence: Personality or emotional conflicts stemming from employees not recognizing their own emotions or their teammates’ emotions is also a critical pain point.

  • Passive-aggressive communication: Weak listening and persuasion skills, as well as the inability to adapt to various communication styles, are also common problems at fast-growing startups. Our clients shared, “We seem to spend a lot of time settling disputes related to passive aggressive communication” and “It might be most beneficial to focus on skill-based topics like communication such as managing difficult conversations or improving presentation skills.”

At BigTalker, we plan custom training programs to address these specific organizational challenges often found at startups. We identify team dysfunctions and map them to core organizational behavior themes that can be addressed with specific soft-skills training programs. We are also partnering with Udemy for Business to offer online soft skills courses.

How to overcome startup growing pains

How do we solve the above organizational challenges? The key is to address the psychology behind these issues through soft skills training. The latest research in neuroscience and organizational behavior science can guide the programming process.

For example, Dr. Tasha Eurich’s research points to self-awareness as a common managerial weakness. Her research finds that “although 95% of people believe they see themselves clearly, the real number is closer to 10-15%. So at best, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves! Such deception brings with it very real consequences, especially for leaders. Managers who lack self-awareness, for example, are 600% more likely to derail. And the higher up you go on the corporate food chain, the more expensive this becomes. Having the wrong CEO at the helm can cost millions of dollars.”

Based on our work with startup clients, we’ve discovered that challenges like lack of self-awareness can be improved with targeted soft skills training. While it may sound “touchy-feely,” the solution is often to build skills that empower talented employees to be better teammates. It can be challenging, but the opportunity is to self-reflect, learn more about each other, and talk about the reality of human emotions at work.

6 ways to address startup growing pains through professional development programs

1. Emotional intelligence at work

We often think of work as a place for the cognitive brain—an emotionless, problem-solving environment where productivity is the highest priority. But it’s a myth that we should keep our emotions out of the workplace. The reality is that emotions impact ALL decisions, and the emotional brain is highly active at work. Instead of trying to avoid emotions at work, it’s important to understand these emotions to manage these feelings, whether positive or negative.

To achieve this, we teach emotional intelligence sessions that focus on building intrapersonal skills (self-awareness, self-regulation) and interpersonal skills (social skills, motivation, empathy). The key to emotional intelligence is for individuals to recognize their own emotions. Employees must also self-regulate impulses as they are experiencing them as well as possess the ability to recognize the emotions of others.

A key reason for running an Emotional Intelligence session is that every teammate needs to develop a balanced set of skills. Our cognitive brain and emotional brain are constantly working in harmony.Hard skills are not enough. 90% of your career success, especially at the highest levels, comes from EQ when IQ is roughly equal.

2. Mindfulness for stress reduction

Based on a recent workplace stress study conducted by Udemy, workers of every generation report feeling more stressed today in 2017 than they were last year, and the majority of millennials say they are stressed at work most or all of the time. The primary factors driving workplace stress are: being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence, changing job requirements, and having a bad manager. 72% of surveyed Millennials suggested company-supported wellness initiatives as a solution.

At BigTalker, we teach Mindfulness sessions to help employees manage stress and become better teammates. Mindfulness teaches the art of being more present, being a better listener, and being more kind to each other. The great thing about a mindfulness session is that lessons immediately apply to any team. Mindfulness training is good for both general stress reduction and teaching core collaboration skills. Ultimately, mindfulness teaches self-care such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and valuable people skills like being respectful, kind, and generous.

3. Communication skills for collaboration

According to a Comparably study, the Achilles heel for managers is their lack of communication skills. 50% of respondents indicated that communication was the one thing they wanted to change about their boss, far more than other weaknesses. Only 20% felt accountability was necessary for their boss to change, 14% for positivity, 9% for honesty, and 7% for work ethic.

Communication is the cornerstone of all healthy teams. The communications topic resonates with managers because every team member can benefit from building and strengthening their communication skills, whether it’s 1:1 communication or 1: to many communication. Plus there are many varieties of communications skills: storytelling, listening skills, persuasion, and influence.

4. Improv theory for team building

Improv theory is excellent for teams that depend on constant communication. Teams learn to take risks in a safe environment, be supportive, and be creative on their feet. Improv theory teaches core team values that enforce psychological safety such as accepting your teammates’ contributions, building on your teammate’s idea, accepting failure in a safe environment, and making your overall team look good.

5. Don’t forget core hard skills training as well

While soft skills are the glue to keep your teams working together effectively, as startups grow, critical hard skills will continue to be critical. For example training in financial management skills in key financial software programs, digital growth marketing hacks and SEO, and the latest software programming skills like Kotlin for Android development will also be essential to your company’s growth and success.

Hiring managers often over-prioritize hard skills, but the reality is that core hard skills are still imperative to success. The key is to balance out those hard skills with collaboration skills as soft skills can be your company’s strategic advantage.

6. Monitor to ensure training is effective

Finally, once you follow a specific soft skills training program, you’ll want to set up metrics that help measure its success. Is the training directly impacting the core organizational challenges that you identified? Here are the key metrics we have used with our clients at BigTalker to evaluate the effectiveness of our Emotional Intelligence (EQ) training.

Verbatim feedback

First, we can ask employees whether they enjoyed the session. This verbatim feedback is useful for taking the pulse of the group. These are examples of the statements we hear in our feedback survey to gauge overall sentiment of the training.

  • “I enjoyed learning how to handle other people’s emotions.”

  • “I enjoyed that we were even talking about Emotional Intelligence. People in tech never talk about EQ.”

  • “I learned how to be a better listener and realized some people do not want solutions, but just to be heard.”

Likely to recommend

The next metric we usually employ is a simple customer satisfaction metric.
“How likely would you be to recommend this training to a friend or colleague” (Scale 1-10, 1 is not at all likely, 10 is extremely likely).

Skill self-assessment

Another metric we sometimes use is self-assessment of emotional intelligence skills. For example, survey questions might include:

  • “How strong would you say you were in emotional intelligence before the session?”

  • “How strong would you say you will be in emotional intelligence given the skills you have learned today?”

At BigTalker, we’ve tried this self-assessment approach at two recent workshops. The results were 15% and 20% lift in EQ skills, respectively.

In a recent BigTalker Emotional Intelligence workshop, the average “ability to deal with emotions at work” rating rose from 6.6 out of 10 to 8.0 out of 10. General self-assessed competence varies widely, but the trend is a 2 point lift in competence.

Navigate conflict with soft skills training

Finally, we’ve found that all teams struggle with conflict and stress. Conflict can’t be avoided, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be destructive. Conflict is a reality of humans interacting with other humans. The key is to embrace it and learn how to navigate conflict individually and as a team. The most effective way to address these common organizational challenges is to provide your team with core soft skill-building programs to strengthen their collaboration competencies.

Dave Sloan is the Founder of BigTalker and an instructor on Udemy for Business. BigTalker is a network of professional development facilitators focused on soft skills and collaboration. BigTalker also offers a variety of management training programs across organizational behavior topics including emotional intelligence skills, improv theory, communication skills, and mindfulness.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future thumbnail


Discover the latest trending tech & soft skills, top 10 skills by industry & role, and how organizations are preparing their workforce for the future.

More from Soft Skills Topic

Soft Skills

The Top 8 Learning & Development Priorities for 2020

The beginning of the new year and decade has many people thinking about their goals and plans for the future....

Soft Skills

Top 10 Soft Skills in 2020 for the Workplace

Why are soft skills critical for the workplace, in 2020 and beyond? “Humans can imagine things that never have been,”...

Soft Skills

Succeeding at the Top: Leadership Skills for Senior Leaders

With the new year beginning, you and your employees may be thinking about promotions, leadership, and taking the next career...