Do Startups Have a Drinking Problem?
Sarah Jane Coffey

Peter Bonney suggests maybe it’s not a startup problem, but an empathy problem. I agree with the idea that there’s a larger empathy problem (I was all set to use some much less empathetic term for it), and it’s at the heart of your experiences with these… oops, almost slipped to that less-empathetic descriptor.

But I wonder if, to reframe that in the form of your original premise, it’s particularly true that startups have an empathy problem? The behaviors you describe, and the frequency that you’ve experienced them, seem worse and more frequent than I’d like to believe is true of the issue within the general population.

I believe that research has shown that there is a measurably higher incidence of sociopathy among CEOs and other type A success stories than among the general population. It’s not a stretch to imagine that would-be CEOs would map to at least that level, and that sub-sociopathic levels of empathy deficit would also be present.

In my engagements with startups, I’ve been fortunate to have only encountered this kind of behavior in one. (After getting my flesh peeled back in an early presentation, one of the other people in the company took me aside and said “Don’t feel bad, it’s not about you. He made a senior developer cry during an interview.”) But maybe it’s not entirely fortune, either.

If startups do have an empathy problem, I think the best defense is one proposed by another commenter, which is to be extremely selective about who you work for. That’s easier said than done in tight times, and sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. But in trying to strike the right life balance, at times I’ve definitely chosen less than my maximum income potential in favor of surrounding myself with situations and people who are more nourishing to work with.

So, I hope you’re in a position in life that will allow you to be able to press and really interview potential employers with the same scrutiny they apply, and walk away from offers if the vibe isn’t right for you. Even if startup culture makes it harder to find that vibe to support your needs, startups that do are out there, and my fingers are crossed for you that you’ll be able to successfully screen out the ones that don’t get it. (Or maybe find a rewarding position in a non-startup with a less crazy culture!)

Thanks for writing this, some of those behaviors you’ve experienced are driven by a dangerous combination of lack of empathy plus simple ignorance of what people with alcohol addiction need to do. Maybe a few of those folks will read this and gain a little insight. Who knows, that might even lead to more empathy, and contribute to some culture change :-)

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