Time to Stop the Startup Killers

In the medical world, “silent killers” are conditions with no obvious symptoms which progress to an advanced stage before someone discovers them. In organizations and on teams, a lack of psychological safety, unconscious bias, and low trust are “silent killers” that slowly drain away energy, engagement, and the human spirit — often going undetected until the damage becomes irreparable. Ignoring these silent killers is toxic for teams and life-threatening for startups.

I had a ringside seat within two failed startups. What those two startups had in common was great potential, solid investor backing… and leaders who ignored the people dynamics and the impact of their own toxic behavior. They couldn’t (or refused to) see the behavioral and relationship issues that were slowly killing their team’s energy and engagement — and ultimately led to the demise of the fledgling startups. I’ve had dozens of conversations with entrepreneurs in which these same stories repeated themselves. These themes are so common, you can find them throughout two compendiums of failed startup narratives that make for some slightly depressing but revealing reading, especially when you view the stories through the lens of people’s behavior:

People Risks

Nothing will kill your startup faster than partnering with or hiring the wrong people and failing to develop and sustain strong, trusting relationships. Yes, there are a few high-profile examples of companies that raise massive amounts of money and grow to claim ‘unicorn’ status despite toxic cultures. But few startups are Uber.

In organizations and on teams, a lack of psychological safety, unconscious bias, and low trust are “silent killers” that slowly drain away energy, engagement, and the human spirit.

People are the most important, and least predictable, factor of any business. The right combination of experience and behavior among the founding team and early hires can vastly increase the odds of a startup’s success. Failure to ensure people share healthy values and a common purpose is like injecting a toxin into the team. As a co-founder and leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to develop and sustain healthy, trusting relationships on and across your teams as you scale the business. Unfortunately, it is too often a lonely pursuit.

The impact of that lack of attention to a critical business risk factor is subtle and dangerous.

I’ve spent over a decade in Founder/CEO roles and I don’t recall a single instance of an investor or board member asking me about the health or quality of relationships among my direct reports or teams across the organization. As I’ve worked with entrepreneurs and team leaders in recent years the behavior of investors and board members hasn’t changed much. The impact of that lack of attention to a critical business risk factor is subtle and dangerous. When every question revolves around growth in the user base, revenue, and operating metrics that’s where our attention goes. Without obvious symptoms and no metrics, people issues can progress to that point of being either irreparable or requiring a disproportionate amount of leader attention.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Preventing toxic behaviors before they become silent killers begins with recognizing that your organization is at risk. Startups are risky to begin with. When you place a group of people into a cauldron full of aspiration and hope, mixed with stress and disappointment, then stir in money and rapid growth, the dark side of people’s desires and the effects of stress may begin to boil up and over. The key to prevention takes a page from the cookbook of every extraordinary team.

  • First, acknowledge the risk and raise its visibility whether you’re asked about it or not.
  • Next, add people metrics, especially relationship strength, to your KPI’s, OKR’s or whatever scorecard you use to measure performance and determine success. Pay attention to the most lethal behaviors – bias, incivility, and lack of psychological safety.
  • Last, coach to develop relationships. Use the feedback and data to collectively identify actions to close the gaps and track progress.

The old cliché goes, “A team is only as strong as its weakest link.” Today’s teams and organizations are made up of complex often virtual networks, not single linked chains of command and control. That makes the silent killers that slowly destroy people’s energy, engagement, and the human spirit even more difficult to contain and eliminate. The ‘how’ begins with acknowledging the risk than being obsessed with feedback and continuously measuring what really matters – relationship strength on and across your teams.

As Peter Drucker noted, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

This article is based upon excerpts from my book, Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams. Get a signed first-edition copy today! Use code SHIPFREE2019 to get free shipping within the continental US.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Hurley, the co-founder of Xmetryx, has deep expertise in team science and team leader development, and his passion is inspiring leaders to craft extraordinary teams. Jeb’s career journey began on new product innovation teams in Europe and Asia. This led to GM / VP and CEO roles at companies ranging from Fortune 500 to VC backed startups, as well as co-founding 3 software companies. After nearly 30 years in VP, GM, and CEO roles, Dr. Hurley spent five years walking in the shoes of today's team leaders while earning his doctorate in leadership. He experienced what was and wasn't working on the front lines and combined his research with insights from the best minds in the field of team science. His TRM workshop is based upon his groundbreaking research into human motivation, employee engagement, and team performance. Jeb regularly speaks and writes about team leadership and improving employee wellbeing and is the author of Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams, as well as The ONE Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Engagement & Building Highly-Effective Teams. Jeb has published over 50 articles on team leadership and is a Columnist and Featured Contributor for BIZCATALYST 360°. See Jeb's full bio, and connect with him, on LinkedIn.