No Friction in Your Team? Maybe They Aren’t Working Closely Enough


It took Apollo 11 about three days to get to the Moon, and two days to make it back. But as NASA sets its sights on a visit to Mars in the 2030s, it is dealing with exponentially more difficult planning for the 18-month round trip, plus an anticipated year on the Red Planet. Beyond the technical challenges, they face a very human one: the conflicts that will arise for a crew living together in a spacecraft no bigger than a small house. NASA’s studies of such crews led to an important conclusion: not only is conflict inevitable, it is actually productive and necessary, when managed properly. As you assemble your team and pursue business or organizational success, think like NASA—make sure there is a healthy dose of conflict.

Let’s be clear, there is an important distinction between task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict allows for diversity of thought, and for the ability to regroup and debate when challenges arise. It fosters creative thinking and problem solving. For the Wright Brothers, who beat their eminent, well-funded rival, Samuel Pierpont Langley, to be the first to fly (who has even heard of him?), arguing was their default mode. However, if there is conflict due to poor relationships, it must be managed and nipped in the bud—but that is a topic for a future Perspectives Blog!

Conversely, the avoidance of task conflict discourages creative friction. Absence of conflict is not harmony, it is apathy. Conflict avoidance often occurs when people don’t care enough to speak their minds, or worse, when they fear for their jobs. Much has already been written about the absence of challengers in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. We can only assume that his “zero tolerance” for any type of challenge or conflict, whether task or relationship, was a significant factor in his apparent lack of preparation for the brave resistance and growing national identity of the Ukrainian people.

I often need to remind myself not to fear conflict, but to manage and embrace it. I vividly recall the day that I was talking through team dynamics and issues with my boss at the time. She had a great mantra: If There’s No Friction, You’re Not Working Closely Enough. Don’t look to avoid task conflict to keep people happy. Happy teams are not always the most productive—rather, productive teams are happy teams.

So don’t just prepare for task conflict, but actively invite it in. Here are some strategies to rethink your own views on conflict and to help your team do the same:

  • Take a leaf out of NASA’s book: fill your team with a combination of personality traits. For example, balance conscientiousness (important for technical excellence, but can easily be seen as a hindrance or a nag) with high self-monitoring capability (important for being aware of what others are thinking of them). When seeking diversity of background, perspective, and experience in your team, consider using assessment tools, like DISC (four core styles—Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientious) to identify a spectrum of important traits.
  • Find people who are prepared to disagree, and who recognize the importance of task conflict in achieving the best outcomes for the team and the organization. I am reminded of the challenge that President Obama embraced when taking on a cabinet member from across the aisle: “We have to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree, without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common.”
  • Assemble a challenge network. We all have support networks, but we also need people we trust to question us and to point out the holes in our thinking, the flaws in our logic, and decisions that might be distracting us from our goals.
  • Ask challenging questions and unlock the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. We tend to think we understand complex systems better than we actually do; but when we must explain things to others, we quickly realize there is a lot we don’t know—and this realization can make us less extreme and more open minded. Asking your team members intriguing questions that highlight their knowledge gaps can help them to become more flexible.
  • Think of all the things that could go wrong. You are not trying to paralyze your team with unbridled worry and anxiety, but rather to set the table for open, vital inquiry. Anxiety is a powerful tool, if it isn’t permitted to run rampant. Listen to it as information that could lead to the identification of existential threats to your business or organization, and creative solutions for facing them. As Andy Grove, former Intel CEO insightfully said, “In business, only the paranoid survive.”
  • And yes, check your ego. Don’t confuse challenges to your views with threats to your sense of self. Listen with an open mind, so that you can truly hear what you are being told—not simply what you want to hear (confirmation bias) or what you think others want to hear (desirability bias).

An organization’s greatest asset goes down the elevator, walks out the front door, or logs off at the end of every day. Motivation is key to successful team retention, and strong performers are best motivated by challenging, productive environments. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about creating team-motivating friction. Epicoach is licensed to administer DISC and other assessments, to help you create a balanced, productive team. Email, or call 917 484 2771.