Tension is a Good Thing? No!

In a startup business, tension is one of the critical tools of every founder. A founder is tasked with a lot of responsibilities, not the least of which are product and execution. Of course, there is the expectation that he or she is some type of visionary. But a founder is not going to get far if she or he can’t motivate people. Certainly, there may be abrasive types who find great success, so this idea of motivating people is clearly not just bubbly charisma or some domain of cheerleading.

The startup is the founders' baby, and if they don’t get things done day and night, then it’s almost for sure the startup is going to be a non-starter. We take it as a given that the founders are all-in. The litmus test though is how the founder convinces a team member, maybe even someone without a handful of stock options, of something. Really convinces them. 

A founder has a vision of product and market, and how it is all supposedly going to fit together. But people supersede product and market: people are everything. And you can’t hide behind some HR functionary; this is the bread and butter of building any enterprise, convincing people that the opportunity, your opportunity is worth it. How do you convince a team to stay longer or code harder? Foosball and pizza? Yes, maybe that's a part of it, sure. How do you convince them to respond to email at odd hours, or just do that one more thing, that the most important thing in their lives is the next thousand keystrokes, or the next two commits, or the next customer service email?

I remember how once, in the middle of my one year of high school in Beijing, I was eating at a noodle house after school, with someone I thought was a much weaker kid than I was. I played sports and so on, while he was gaunt and bookish, but somehow, we’d become friends. I always felt that I was tougher, my instincts sharper, but shucks, was I proven wrong. On that day, between slurps of noodle, an electrical fire flared up out of nowhere. I shouted something to the effect that we should get out of there a.s.a.p. and leapt for the exit. But he just walked to where the fire extinguisher was, picked it up, calmly made sense of the instructions, and, with a few foamy bursts, put out the fire. While I was pushing myself out the door, he was pulling himself up to do something beyond the call of duty. Why, I don’t know. Was there perhaps some latent sense of duty tugging at him? Was he a reformed pyromaniac who just relished this kind of thing; or was he just that cool a customer--to this day--I don't know.

A founder has a lot of things at her or his disposal, such as cash and incentive bonuses, stock options, warrants and other deferred compensation, or if cash is not a problem then more frou-frou things, perks like nice food, free seminars and workshops, bean bags, day care, etc., etc. Nonetheless, whether the incentives are harder or softer, all this is missing the point. Motivating others isn’t about pushing. It is a brittle organization that pushes people. Such organizations make the assumption that because they give their people more benefits and perks, those people can rightly be pushed harder and harder to do ever more. But people can only be pushed so far until the law of diminishing returns kicks in. They can only be pushed so far before the marginal increases in morale go right down. Tension is not about pushing--plucking at the heartstrings is the very first order of business. It’s all about pulling and reaching out, like pulling a bow, which creates an opportunity for the arrow to uncoil energy and self-propel.

Tension is entrusting your startup employees with free time and space where they are not under constant surveillance, nor constant pressure to respond immediately to every jittery email. It is giving them the room and freedom to explore and come up with new ideas, positive in the possibility that it will create opportunities for them to stumble onto new things. As effective founders will always tell you, “The door is there, you are welcome to leave.” They have the courage to corral every emotional resource to focus on the prize. Ineffective founders sequester you, they monitor you, they expect you to be effective whilst on a short leash.

Tension is invisibly making things sticky, where the chances to engender “buy-in” increase. Likewise, a mobile application can utilize the “push” smartphone feature as an alert, to notify you of what’s happening. But there’s no app out there that can "alert" its way to success. Fundamentally, there must be some reason for you to naturally come back to the app. In other words, the what's decisive is always the "pull."

Effective founders often use a mixture of love, honor and fear to motivate their people. Tension is effectively the idea that pulls at and keeps all these emotions in a sort of equilibrium. Each one is necessary, but the greater the challenge, the less sufficient is any particular one of them alone. The greatest achievements share the podium with a tinge of love for what you are doing, the heart to serve a cause greater than yourself (i.e. honor), and a fear of losing.