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Partners in Life and Work: Navigating Shared Responsibilities

Mental Load Series 1/3

Recently I caught up with a friend over a hot cup of coffee in my Berlin office. He is the managing partner of a well-known German venture fund. As we delved into the complexities of co-founder dynamics, he leaned in. A glint of both humor and seriousness shone in his eyes. 

"You know," he began, stirring his coffee with a contemplative pause. "I've come to see that founding a start-up and navigating a marriage are startlingly similar. It's all about partnership, compromise, and understanding. That's why I do something a bit unconventional with our most promising co-founders."

He paused for effect, ensuring he had my full attention. "I send them to my couples therapist."

I smiled. As a coach -- and die-hard fan of Ester Perel's work - statements like that check all the boxes for me. What's so rewarding is that finally, the positive ROI of relationship work starts to resonate with venture capital leaders.

The Parallels of Partnership

Imagine a partnership where the work never stops. Both partners to-do list is overflowing. The roles are written up but not completely clear. The scope of work is so dynamic. Every week, new, unforeseen challenges arise. They are not in the static role descriptions. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in the relationship. The organization cannot fail, or should not.

What kind of partnership did you think of? Am I talking about co-founders or co-parents?

I am realizing that co-parents and co-founders face similar challenges and dynamics. It is puzzling to me that most organizational strategists advise against Co-CEO set-ups. However, many families try to make full co-ownership work, often to mutual despair.

My friend's anecdote wasn't just a quirky practice. It was a profound insight into the essence of successful partnerships. This applies to both the boardroom and the living room.

I really thought we’d be further along as a society. But even in my own behavior, I observe some unconscious paternalistic bias. I was surprised – and shocked. Mental load is a power dynamic, and especially at home, it is far from being solved.

The Free-Rider Problem

I want to explore these partnerships. I also want to explore the free-rider problems -- when one does not pick up their fair share of the work in partnerships.

Why? I see these dynamics play out violently in both friends and clients. During my initial research, I found that the existing findings are surprisingly shallow. They lacked a constructive approach.

Every team carries a certain amount of responsibility. My friend and fellow coach, Jens Alsleben, beautifully put it: Team members have a choice in how to respond to responsibility.

Responsibility is - quite literally - the “ability to respond”. There are four different responses.

  1. You can respond: you have the ability to answer the call and step up

  2. You want to respond: you have the desire to answer the call and step up

  3. You should respond: you are expected, maybe morally bound, to answer the call and step up

  4. You must respond: you are expected and contractually or legally bound to answer the call and step up

These response categories are exhaustive but not mutually exclusive. You can have the ability (“can”) and the contractual obligation (“must”) to respond.

There is a sequence, though: whether I want to or whether others want me to, I have to be able to respond in the first place.

The most problematic of these stages is the “should” respond. Partnerships often fall into conflict here, because the "should" label often applies to multiple partners or team members. The freerider problem arises when a team member or partner should respond but does not want to.

The challenge of most partnerships - at home or in the workplace - is that partners share the “must respond” column. If one partner is not able to respond, the other will have to jump in – otherwise, they’d put the partnership at risk.

In most partnerships, the “must respond” items are split up between the partners. They get a “should” label for one partner, with the other one as the backup.

Terminal Responsibility

I focused my exploration on a key concept: “terminal responsibility.” Parents and co-founders alike are where the buck stops. They are at the end of the line, where responsibility needs to be taken even when everyone else has passed. If you are the only person in an organisation with “terminal responsibility”, the process is simple. For every important task that no one has taken ownership of yet, this task will end up in your hands. 

What happens if two people own “terminal responsibility”?

Suddenly it becomes hard to navigate who of the two is going to be the “default owner” of all the important and ignored tasks. Who truly “must” respond? Many relationships start discussing the "mental load" here. That's where my exploration began. I want to explore more of this discussion in the following posts. I’ll explain what mental load is and isn’t, and how it comes into existence.

Again, this applies to co-parents, co-founders and co-CEOs. It seems to be one of the most pervasive and most valuable discussions we’ve never had.

The most helpful reframe of this deadlock situation has two steps.

  1. realizing that “responding” does not mean “carrying out the work” or “doing the thing”. It means noticing the new task and surfacing it as a topic in the shared discussion. This can mean that a co-founder brings it up in their weekly 1x1 or all-hands. That does not mean the person bringing up the task has to do the work or solve the problem.

  2. Only the second step is actually owning the responsibility to find a solution. Even in this case, it does not mean that the person has to do the work. They merely have to ensure the completion of the task, even if someone else performs the task.

A Framework for Shared Load

I loved Brene Brown's approach to the terminal responsibility problem. She shared it in Tim Ferriss' Podcast. As a couple, and in other partnerships, you do not need to own 100% of the work and emotional load every day. You need to cover 100% together, and how you will split it up will change from day to day.

Let’s say you come home and your partner had a long and tiring day. They let you know they have 20% left in them. You are feeling full of energy, so you respond “not a problem, I will carry 80% of the load today”. Together, you’re adding up to 100%. In situations where you’ll have to concede that you’re only contributing 40%, you’ll need to sit down and temporarily reduce the scope. You might order food delivery, delay projects, or cancel the big family dinner on Saturday. The goal is to reduce the scope so that your available energy will be enough to “cover” 100%.

The lost dimension: mutual kindness & care

Notice that Brown actually does not say “we’re sitting down and reducing scope”? Actually, she says “we’re formulating a plan of kindness towards each other”.

I have long had my difficulties with the mental load discussion because it is so task and productivity oriented. It is not about work. It is, however, about the question “do you care about me, about us?”.

For that reason, I have introduced a new mental model for myself: “Tiny Aggressive Care > Productivity & Roles”

The label “aggressive” might be off-putting but it stands out, and I can remember it more easily. What am I talking about? I am talking about proactive, small acts of kindness towards your partner. The underlying dynamic in mental load is not a productivity discussion. It is the violent narrative of “you don’t care about me”. Tiny, aggressive care means showing care towards your partner through actions, not words. It means buying flowers on a regular Thursday. My wife spontaneously sends me to yoga practice on a Sunday morning. Or I look up the opening hours of her favorite restaurant. These are not grand gestures. They don’t change the overall to-do list. But they are tiny tokens of your affection towards each other.

A little exercise for you:

  • at home: imagine your partner falls sick for three weeks and needs to sleep most of the day. Now imagine a typical day, what are the things they do? Childrens’ lunch boxes? Family finances?

  • in the (founder) workplace: imagine your co-founder needs to go fundraising and it gets really intense for more than six months. No joke, this is how it typically goes! What are all the responsibilities you now have to take? Run the all-hands? Update the company Notion page with the latest product roadmap insights? Migrate data from your data warehouse to your investor reporting?

Whatever it is, pick three items from the list and complete them for your partner this week. (Please message me how they responded.)

The essence of partnership transcends mere division of labor. It is a dance of mutual respect. It's a harmonious blend of giving and receiving. It's underpinned by an unspoken agreement. We'll navigate the ebb and flow of energy and commitment together. Sounds clichee, but let kindness be your compass on this journey. Even if we're talking Co-CEOs. Let mutual support be your guiding star. In the smallest acts of love and consideration, you'll build the true foundation of your partnership.

How I can help you

1:1 Coaching: Over the last five years, I’ve helped 150+ entrepreneurs & investors navigate complex life and business challenges. Reach out to learn more.

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