As a startup founder, you’d usually spend a large part of your time trying to get various people to do new things. On one side, you’d have to convince customers to try out your offering. On the other, you’d have to convince your employees, cofounders, business partners, or other stakeholders in your business to do a lot of work for your project.

Consequently, one big issue you would inevitably encounter as a team leader or business owner, in general, is the fact that a lot of people would make commitments that they don’t fulfill.

Here are 3 tips on how to minimize the likelihood of getting into such situations.

1. Beware Of A Fake “Yes”

In his brilliant book on negotiation “Never Split the Difference”, former FBI negotiator Chriss Voss mentions three types of “yes” – confirmation, commitment, and counterfeit.

A confirmation “yes” is just agreement on stated facts. The commitment “yes” is the one you are after if you want to get people to perform actions for you. However, since people are getting bombarded by such requests often, a large part of them have built a defense mechanism – the counterfeit “yes”.

Sometimes it’s easier to say “yes” without real intentions to follow through on your commitment (at least whole-heartedly) in order to avoid conflict in the short term. You would encounter this situation very often if you are persuasive enough (i.e. a good salesperson), but the underlying incentives don’t align well enough (more on that below).

First and foremost, you need to realize that as a founder getting a “no” is a much better option than getting a fake “yes”.

The reason is simple – a no lets you plan accordingly. A fake “yes” leaves you in a situation in which your expectations will not be realistic, which means that your plans wouldn’t map well to reality.

In order to avoid this destructive scenario, you need to be direct. Stating explicitly that “no” is also a viable answer and explaining that you are interested in their honest opinion helps a lot. Of course, doing this would likely increase the times you hear “no”, but this is preferable to the alternative – a lot of fake commitments that you can’t plan for.

In fact, not being afraid to hear “no” is one of the main principles of negotiation for startups. It would let you understand much better where your offering to customers, employees, or partners isn’t working well.


2. Understand Incentives

Actions are determined by incentives.

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” – Dale Carnegie

Understanding what each person is getting from your professional relationship and for particular ask is vital. The more abstract the task and the more time and energy it requires, the more important it is to have well-motivated partners and employees.

Of course, motivating your startup team and partners is a complicated topic in its own right. In short, however, it’s a good idea to think about extrinsic and intrinsic motivating factors.

The most common tool for extrinsic motivation you can use is variable pay – performance bonuses and employee stock options. Having a stake in the upside of the project is a strong motivating factor and it could push people to walk the extra mile in the name of their own interests.

Intrinsic motivating tools, however, are also important. Doing meaningful work, and having a company culture with a strong sense of relatedness and belonging are also motivating factors. People are social creatures – they thrive in social environments in which they are appreciated, and would work hard to preserve and improve their social status there.

2. Have Realistic Expectations

Last but not least, you need to have realistic expectations of other people.

Are their incentives too small compared to your ask? Are they overworked – do they have the free capacity required for the task? Do they possess the needed knowledge and experience to achieve good results?

It’s naive to expect somebody to follow through on a commitment they have made if they are not in a situation to do so.

It’s a good practice to try to enquire about the circumstances of the people you are talking to – their previous experience, their current free capacity, and so on. If they share information that raises red flags – ask how they intend to solve these apparent problems.

In summary, here are three important tips on how to reduce the instances in which your stakeholders don’t follow through with their commitments:

  • Make sure their incentives are aligned with the actions you expect from them
  • Have realistic expectations from people – inquire about their circumstances
  • Avoid a fake “yes” – getting a “no” is usually much better

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