Chasing Friction: The Paradox of High Performing Teams

By: Hise Gibson and Shawn Robertson

In 2018, the New England Patriots — yet again — won the Super Bowl. The synergy of the team was terrific. The offense, defense, and special teams functioned like a well-oiled machine moving through the National Football season with violent precision. Their seemingly effortless team cohesion belied a deeper truth about the organization — that their incredible synchronization was not the absence of internal friction but the mastery of it. The introduction of new rookies with seasoned veterans creates natural conflict. There is an annual requirement to gel as a group if a successful run for a championship is to occur. Leaders on winning teams accelerate this gelling process by harnessing friction to ensure that every player is heard and clearly understands their role.

To an organizational leader, seeking friction may seem counterproductive. After all, scientists will tell you that friction is the force that opposes motion. Great leaders, however, have discovered that far from acting as an impedance, friction is the secret element to creating high performing teams. Across many industries today, it is common for teams to seek harmony through homogeneity — prioritizing agreeing with their bosses and teammates to avoid any level of friction. When this occurs, the team and organization become susceptible to developing critical blind spots. Moreover, these teams will collectively become overly dependent on their leaders, and at risk for failing to take ownership of new initiatives, goals, or company products.

Chasing a healthy level of friction is challenging when team members think alike or when a work environment is unfavorable to disagree. Despite a leader’s inherent desire to select teammates who believe and behave similar to oneself, intellectual diversity is key to reaching a quality, comprehensive decision. This diversity will initially lead to team debates, bickering, or team members becoming passionate about their ideas. But when teams are afforded a safe environment to become frustrated or respectfully disagree with their bosses, groupthink becomes a casualty. Conflict will lead to results, and it introduces an environment of psychological safety. Leaders must embrace this dynamic, and lead their team through the friction.

Building a team atmosphere where its members chase friction is no easy feat. It requires a collaborative space where everyone is encouraged to speak and share whatever is on their mind for the group’s gain. To achieve this healthy and creative space, we invite leaders to B-A-U-L-K in their team meetings as a method of chasing friction at every opportunity. Under this system, the leader chases friction by acknowledging their individual and team blind spots, accepting psychological safety as a manner of practice, understanding the need for ownership, leverage the Naysayer, and keeping an open mind.

Blind Spots

A team that thinks alike will produce like products, have like conversations, and behave in like ways. Unsurprisingly, a team that functions this way is exposed to many blind spots, as their weaknesses are compounded without the benefit of outside perspectives; they will be challenged seeing themselves. Over time, this dynamic will lead to decisions that seem favorable yet have negative second and third-order impacts. An excellent example of this is when Johnson & Johnson manufactured single-colored Band-Aids in the 1920s. They later used the advertisement, “Neat, flesh-colored, almost invisible,” in a tv commercial. Groupthink and blind-spots amongst the marketing team contributed to them either failing to notice or failing to care what they assumed was “normal” flesh-color. We argue that, with the right diversity and friction present, these racial undertones could have been avoided or quickly corrected, considering that this commercial was televised in 1955.

Accept Psychological Safety

Any team that wants to get the best out of its people will ensure that the environment is safe, not only from external threats but also from psychological hazards. Psychological safety is the belief that people won’t be punished when they make a mistake. Typically, employees show up to a work setting looking for ways to fit in, appease their bosses, and get promoted. Doing so enables these workers to feel safe and accepted. Taken to an extreme in environments where psychological safety isn’t guaranteed, employees may ask, “Why do any action that rocks the boat and jeopardizes my job or social capital?” Unfortunately, this mentality has a stifling effect on the team and even the organization’s potential. Therefore, leaders and team members must find ways to install psychological safety, allowing each team member to show up, agree, disagree, and contribute.

Understand the need for ownership

A well-known adage — involvement breeds commitment — is rife in leadership circles today. This phenomenon is even more apparent when teams embrace friction, which significantly impacts each person’s desire to own the outcome. People have a natural desire to contribute to a team. However, when teams are constrained to pre-written scripts, a psychologically unsafe environment, and hierarchal decision models, they are less inclined to suggest that revolutionary idea that your organization might need to win a sizable advantage. Over time, team members who operate in proscriptive environments will lose their motivation for personal buy-in and involvement to conform to the organization’s culture. As a result, they will not take ownership! Leaders must reverse this reality on their teams and within their organizations. Get all of your team members involved in the decision making, and they will commit and take ownership of the outcome.

Leverage the Naysayer

By definition, a Naysayer is “one who denies, refuses, opposes, or is skeptical or cynical about something.” A Naysayer may also be the person on the team who says the least during planning sessions and only remarks once an initiative stalls. Leaders need to deliberately engage these team members because their opinions, even dissenting ones, are valuable. If you’re looking to check your blind spots, the Naysayer is likely the one who can see it most clearly. Unfortunately, they are frequently too quickly overlooked because they are not the loudest or most assertive. But an old expression states, “those who speak the loudest often have nothing to say.”

Keep an open mind

A great leader keeps an open mind, humbly remaining receptive to feedback and opinions, even from employees operating at the lowest levels. There must be an acknowledgment that this can only occur if the leader is secure in their abilities and intentionally wants to leverage their teams to ensure the best outcomes. An open mind does not mean a passive mind, where leaders merely acknowledge their employees’ thoughts to reassure them that they have been heard. Instead, leaders must keep an open and active mind; they should seek ways to understand the recommendations, complaints, and push-back that naturally derive in teams. When leaders get this right, their teams will become more collaborative, experimental, and innovative.

Friction is often viewed as an impediment, something that can slow down the collaborative process. Despite friction seeming negative and counterproductive, we argue that teams who install healthy practices of friction often perform above their competitors, which leads to making timely decisions that have been vetted in an inclusive environment. Leaders who chase friction within their teams want to illuminate their blind spots — they want an aerial and 360-degree view of themselves. Furthermore, these leaders want their team members to feel safe and take ownership of new innovations and processes. By keeping an open mind, they also empower naysayers by teasing out their thoughts on why these innovations are poorly constructed or might fail. By harnessing the power of friction, leaders can create more agile, more insightful teams and can achieve more significant results with the assets they already have at hand.

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.

Shawn Robertson is an Army Military Intelligence Officer and currently serves as a Leader Developer at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a graduate of the Army’s Eisenhower Leader Development Program and holds a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Passionate about the intersection of Operational Effectiveness & Human Capital Development by leveraging a Systems Thinking framework to solve complex problems.