Glass Jaw Syndrome

Enjoy The Work Blog post. Glass Jaw Syndrome.

There are so many diseases that afflict the young startup. I’ve written about many of them before: Frantic Founder Syndrome, The Pleaser CEO, and Multiple Personalities, to name a few.

But none frustrates a founder more than Glass Jaw Syndrome (GJS). In boxing vernacular, having a glass jaw means not being able to take a punch. One good shot and you’re kissing canvas.

In startups, GJS refers to not being able to receive feedback.

We’ve all met this employee. The slightest hint of criticism sends them careening. Even moderate comments are met with anguish, tears, or paralysis. It’s toxic. And the impact echoes across the team.

Those with GJS are not silent sufferers. Everyone with whom they come in contact knows they are afflicted with the disease. They wail about being under-appreciated, almost righteous in their victimhood. They describe the treatment of others in hyperbolic terms…

“Cheryl produces half of what I produce, and she has double the resources!”


“Jerome always has his work appreciated and noticed while no one ever says anything positive about my group.”

When the GJS employee is a poor performer, the decision is easy. You have a team member who both fails to drive results and is a cultural negative.

However, just as often, you might have a great contributor with a glass jaw. What to do, then? Most young founders try and walk an imaginary slack line equal parts coddling and praising, hoping beyond hope not to step on any emotional landmines. But the explosions happen nonetheless.

Here’s how this often looks:

  • You (collaboratively) set goals.
  • GJS employee begins to execute plans toward the achievement of those goals.
  • You (gingerly) ask questions about progress ➤ explosion.
  • You ask for data to understand the impact of plans ➤ another explosion.
  • Miss on plans (we’re a startup, shit happens!) ➤ another explosion.
  • Create a new plan ➤ start this dance over again.

The sad truth is that as a founder you cannot cure GJS no more than you could cure an employee’s peanut allergy. You have 3 choices:

  1. Fire them.

  2. Live with it.

  3. Have an honest conversation with her/him about what it’s like to give them feedback, how it is holding them back in their career, and negatively impacts relationships with the team. After the inevitable emotional outburst, see if they eventually will join you in that discussion and own their frailty. See if they’re willing to shine a real light on it and do the work necessary to stop equating feedback to a character attack. If they are willing, you can help get them the support they need.

Everyone’s personal work is different, but for the employee to really make a change, they’re going to need someone in their corner. That might be you, a therapist, a coach, or maybe even a boxing trainer. 😉

Do you know of anyone with GJS in your world?

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