In business, there is both positive and negative friction. The positive friction allows for the type of conflict that moves individuals to challenge the status quo and engage in conversations about what the company might do differently now or in the future. Negative friction is the conflict that occurs under the surface, with the resistance quietly hidden from sight, often by people who have already decided to do something different even though it conflicts with the strategies and decisions the company’s leaders have already taken.
When individuals and teams decide to something contrary to what the leadership team needs and expects of them, they create a misalignment of efforts—and outcomes. Misalignment creates risks and challenges, and as a leader, you need alignment to put up your best results.
Disagreement with Leadership
As a senior leader, you have to be careful not to lead from behind, ignoring the insights, ideas, and challenges of those who are on the front line, serving clients, solving problems, and creating value. Those who are closest to the clients and the day-to-day operational issues can share the ground truth, what’s happening and why. Your team may have already used their resourcefulness and their initiative to come up with a better than expected solution.
Other times, however, some will decide to solve a problem in a way that isn’t capable of producing the necessary outcome—or worse. They may choose to do something in a way that harms the company’s longer-term strategy and one that conflicts with leadership’s directives. Because it isn’t addressed openly, it is negative friction, the kind that changes the plan, the direction, and conflicts with the outcome.
What does this look like in real life? Imagine a sales organization that has chosen a strategy of being high trust, high caring, and high value, and to deliver something far better than their competition, they charge a premium for the value they create. One manager decides that revenue is more critical than the guidance on margins, and to make their number, instructs their team to match their “good enough” competitor’s pricing, a strategy that might work in another company.
The misalignment here is one of changing the sales organization’s strategy. Because the sales manager under-priced the offering, they have deprived their organization of the profit margins they need to deliver the experience on which their approach is built.
Once the decision is made, those who do something at odds with the direction or directives create negative friction. If you are cold, rubbing your hands together very quickly creates warmth, positive resistance. Not changing the oil in your automobile will generate the type of negative friction that will require you to purchase a new car.
Alignment and the Elimination of Negative Friction
Leadership alignment is a superpower. It eliminates negative friction but not positive friction. It allows the multiplication of effort and speed to results because everyone is working towards their collective goals without the challenges created by people who decide to go their own direction.
Continuing the example above, imagine the sales manager is struggling to reach their goals. Instead of discounting their pricing, they instead decide to allocate their marketing budget and their team’s time and energy against only the prospective clients who will both value their solution and who have a higher propensity to make the more significant investment.
Nothing in this scenario conflicts with the company’s value proposition, their directive, nor is it out of alignment; even though low trust, centralized companies might perceive this as negative friction.
No Time for Negative Friction
After a decision, playing the devil’s advocate is negative friction, the kind that creates misalignment and a dozen other problems. The resistance that is the role of the devil’s advocate needs to happen before a decision is taken. Challenging a decision, how to execute that decision, or offering suggestions that might improve things is positive friction when it occurs before you decide. Successful leaders encourage positive friction.
There is no time for negative friction when it is time to execute. Once you achieve long enough to have identified real and actionable learnings, it makes sense to pause long enough to invite the positive friction that might potentially improve your execution. If something isn’t working or isn’t working well enough, making adjustments and aligning around those changes often enhances your results. Effective leadership is inviting friction, and then aligning around change.
Once it is time to march, you align and march. When it is time to reflect and integrate the lessons you’ve learned or test new hypotheses, misalignment is necessary.
The tension between constructive friction and alignment provides a balance between stasis and dynamism and between the status quo and transformational change. Too much conflict with no alignment makes for weak execution and poor results. Too much alignment with no friction, and there is no growth or improvement.
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