DISTRIBUTED: 4 Ways to Crush Distributed Team Friction

Friction: it exists in virtually every company, distributed or not. Whether two team members can never see eye to eye or a manager and her employee just rub each other the wrong way, friction is an ever-present danger in the business world.

“Machines, human or otherwise, need to be maintained in order to run properly,” writes Merle Rein, certified mediator and conflict resolution trainer. “As managers, we are the lubricant, the substance that can reduce friction when it exists.”

If you want to cultivate a collaborative culture, it’s essential to cut through the tension and ensure your distributed team runs like a well-oiled machine. Here at Intridea, we follow four proven techniques to curtail friction within our team.

Friction Reducer #1: Don’t Overdo the Process

If you want employees to be self-driven and go above and beyond what's expected of them, the worst thing you can do is saddle them with a burdensome, overly complicated process. After all, nothing will kill creativity more quickly than a stringent set of convoluted procedures.

When you force employees to adhere to rigid guidelines, they’ll only do what’s required by that process—nothing more. This will box them in to a limited set of solutions, and they’ll be afraid to break through boundaries or even scribble outside of the lines.

According to Teresa Amabile’s research with her Harvard University team, external restrictions almost always squash creative thinking. These outside restrictions include everything from rigorous rules and overly complex processes to leaders implying that new ideas are unwelcome.

Too much process not only smothers creativity—it also suppresses self-motivation. “In today's knowledge economy, creativity is more important than ever,” writes Amabile in a Harvard Business Review article. “But many companies unwittingly employ managerial practices that kill it. How? By crushing their employees' intrinsic motivation—the strong internal desire to do something based on interests and passions.”

Amabile points out that managers don't intentionally slaughter creativity and motivation. Yet in the pursuit of productivity, efficiency and control, leaders inadvertently trample these desirable employee attributes.

Remember: as a distributed team leader, your goal is to hire self-motivated people and nurture that behavior. Yet, an overwrought process will quickly extinguish that behavior. When employees have to jump through hoops to get something done, they're less likely to try.

Friction Reducer #2: Don’t Micromanage

We covered the dangers of micromanagement in an earlier blog, but it’s worth mentioning again. If you want a team of skilled thinkers tackling problems in creative ways, you should never micromanage. Micromanaging will eventually turn a team of self-driven, autonomous employees into an army of robots. Trust your employees, back off and allow them to make their own decisions.

Friction Reducer #3: Embrace Autonomy

At Intridea, we make a point to give our team members the independence to tackle problems and make decisions on their own. If employees have to run every single detail by their manager or gauntlet of others, this slows down their creative process and saps their motivation.

“Well, what if I give an employee autonomy and he screws up?” you might be asking. If a self-driven team member makes a mistake, don’t feel like you have to approve every step he takes from that day forward. Instead, give the employee constructive feedback to steer him in the right direction and then back off. Remember, micromanagement crushes motivation and creativity…so it’s important to give your team members space to accomplish goals on their own.

In fact, research from the University of Washington, Foster School of Business reveals that the key to developing passionate, creative employees is giving them autonomy. “Context is very important,” says Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor of management and organization at the Foster School. “Teams, units and organizations that promote and support autonomous thinking and working will become more passionate. And, in turn, more creative,” he adds.

This heightened creativity will have a major impact on your distributed team’s success. That’s because passionate free thinkers are more likely to take risks that could pay off in huge dividends for your company.

Friction Reducer #4: Don’t Hyper-Focus on Failure

Don't make failure a point of friction. Instead encourage employees to take risks and go above and beyond the call of duty. Of course, employees who take big risks will fail from time to time. However, when you dwell on an employee’s failures, you’ll paralyze her into inaction. Instead of punishing the employee for her mishaps, use them as learning experience for the whole company—not as a point of contention.

“To dwell only on problem areas destroys the employee’s confidence and self-esteem, makes the employee more error-prone,” writes Human Resources expert Susan M. Heathfield. She adds that hyper-focusing on failures will quickly squash an employee’s motivation. “The challenge for employers is not to destroy that intrinsic motivation that every employee has.”

By embracing these four simple tactics, you’ll reduce friction, ignite creativity and cultivate a team of free thinkers.

Got any tactics for reducing team friction? Keep the conversation going! We'd love to hear from you.