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How L&D Transforms Startup Employees from Overwhelmed to Empowered

Help your employees shift from a place of survival to a place of possibility.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Sep 25, 2023

In the fast-paced startup world, employees are expected to perform at high levels with minimal guidance. This can be exciting, but quickly transition to overwhelming when there’s not enough support. When there’s overwhelm for too long, it can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome and survival mode thinking, which can eventually lead to burnout. Mentorship can be a powerful tool to transform overwhelmed employees into empowered ones. In this post, we will explore the benefits of mentorship in keeping employees in their productive growth zone (known academically as the Zone of Proximal Development) and how it can help employees shift from a place of survival to a place of possibility.

Startup Culture is all about “getting the job done”

Startups are a unique place where instruction often doesn’t go beyond “get the job done”, even if you’ve never done the job before. It requires a lot of learning by doing, which makes sense since the point of a startup is to quickly build what no one has built before. However, the expectation of figuring it out as you go is often coupled with an employee having more ownership than they’ve ever had before. While it can be empowering to be trusted with so much ownership, it can also be overwhelming, especially for those who haven't done the job before.

Overwhelming and empowering are two sides of the same coin. Too often, a startup’s expectations fall on the side of overwhelm. It becomes a recipe for imposter syndrome (”if I can’t get this done, I must be bad at my job”) and survival mode thinking (”I’m treading water, not swimming forward”). The same high adrenaline that characterizes human fight or flight mentality become the norm. In this heightened state of sensitivity, even little setbacks can feel like big deals.

The Harvard Business Review calls these setbacks microstress, or “bumps in the road”. Microstressors are the things that feel like a small setback by itself, but overwhelming as they build up on each other. It’s moments like getting something in right before the deadline (again), sudden project changes (again), or late night pings from a coworker (again). These microstresses build up into capital-S Stress and, eventually, burnout.

Microstress comes fast and builds up strong in startups — things are unexpected because there is no “what to expect” because this is the first time things are being done. Turnover happens twice as fast in startups than in any other industry. This is largely from the uncertainty built up everyday. Oftentimes employees that leave startups voice: “I just want a job where I’m told what to do for once.”

With the right structures of support put in place however, overwhelming can become empowering.

The Balancing Act Between Overwhelming and Empowering

Keeping a startup’s workplace culture empowering rather than overwhelming is about keeping employees in the productive growth zone. In education circles, this happy middle is called the Zone of Proximal Development. It’s where things are harder than you’ve ever done before, but you have the support to stretch into this new capacity, with help. Eventually, you can handle those tasks on your own too.

However, there’s often no investment in support in startups to help them live in their learning edge, performing at their best while still stretching themselves. In addition, everyone’s busy with their own workload, leaving most people with no support to reach the expectations that they could reach if they just had some help. They end up struggling their way to a solution via trial and error, burning lots of energy along the way.

Building in Support through Mentorship and Coaching

Everyone’s work is mission critical in a startup, and everyone is too busy getting their own job done. This is not a problem in itself (you’re building something big, exciting, and necessary!), but not finding other ways to build that support in is a problem. Support is necessary to have everyone work in their zone of proximal development. There are ways besides just relying on a team that’s already stretched thin. Cue the external mentors.

We started Tandem to help provide that support, especially in the early days. Having an external mentor means they can provide guidance, feedback, and support that employees may not receive from their managers or coworkers. They’re also not in the thick of it, and less impacted by the internal stressors. They give a safe space for your employee to share their concerns or worries that they would be hesitant to share with someone on the immediate team. Coaches help employees shift from a place of survival to a place of possibility.

This can help employees feel more confident in their abilities and less overwhelmed by the challenges they face. Your employees benefit from the expertise and comfort of knowing someone who’s been there before is in their corner. Through providing this space for your employees to process, reflect, and game plan, employees can operate at their peak.

Now imagine what’s possible if every employee is operating at peak performance. Making decisions from a place of fear and anxiety always leads to suboptimal decisions. By offering a space for them to be coached regularly, it’s a release valve for the microstresses and helps them think from a clear space of exploring more options and being creative rather than defaulting to the shortest path. They get unblocked, whether it’s because of a knowledge block or an inner block, such as a limiting belief.

It takes a lot of empathy and context to help in the unique startup setting. That’s why our mentors are all former startup leaders who have been there before, and can uniquely help transform overwhelmed employees into empowered ones. Mentorship provides the necessary support to help employees stay in their zone of proximal development and grow better and faster. Startups who invest in mentorship from the earliest days are the most resilient companies.

Learn more about how to use Tandem to shift your team from overwhelmed to empowered: https://trytandem.com/

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