An Event Apart: Navigating Team Friction

by Luke Wroblewski April 3, 2018

In her Navigating Team Friction presentation at An Event Apart in Seattle, Lara Hogan discussed what causes teams at work to have issues and how to address them. Here's my notes from her talk:

  • Teams of people are amazing. Its a privilege to work together with people to make things.
  • Bruce Tuckman found a series of stages that groups of people go through: forming (comes together in a new state), storming (some friction emerges), norming (clarity begins to emerge), performing (effective state). This is a cycle that repeats itself regularly.
  • Storming is a natural part of team dynamics but it does create friction. You need to be able to move past the friction in order to focus on what actually matters.
  • It can take a while for managers to identify and resolve points of friction. So what can team members do to address the issue earlier on?

Core Needs

  • Everyone transforms into different versions of themselves sometimes. The rationale part of our brains isn't always in control. Instead, we may be reacting to fear and/or threats that put us into fight or flight mode. These reactions come from more than use physical safety and shelter needs.
  • Modern humans have several core needs. First, people need to belong to a group or community. Second, people need to make improvements and/or progress (for team, company, or personally). Third, people need to be able to make choices about their work -they need flexibility, and decision-making capabilities. Fourth, people need access to equal resources, information, and fairness. Fifth, people require some amount of predictability in their work days. Lastly, people need to feel their work matters -they need recognition and visibility for work.
  • The BICEPS model (the needs above) gives you a way to assess what could be causing team friction.
  • As an example, moving desks are a great example of why people react emotionally to seemingly sound rationale decisions. They impact belonging, choice, predictability, etc. but do so differently for different people. To address these issues, try to identify the core need being effected.
  • To find which core needs are being impacted, look at the types of resistance you are seeing. Doubt: asking lots of questions/debating the issue. Avoid: not showing up. Fight: people create arguments against the issue. Bond: go to friends & peers to find support. Escape-route: changing roles, leaving company to avoid the threat.

Communication Style

  • When you spot some signals, ask open questions (which are different than yes/no questions). This helps you understand which core needs are being threatened on the team. Then you can figure out how to address the issue.
  • Reflect on the dynamics of the room, what are they thinking and/or worried about? Be aware of your medium: what words, body language are you using?
  • When you make an ask of someone, consider if they can act on what you are saying. Don't tear things down, try to elevate the conversation by being transparent.
  • Assume everyone has the best intentions at work and try to empathize with what other people may be going through.
  • Listen to learn: stay genuinely curious. Operate under the assumption that you don't know the whole story. Be excited to have your mind changed, it helps you learn and grow.
  • Humans aren't great at feedback but we can get better. Good feedback is specific and actionable. This kind of feedback helps us improve and grow.
  • Structure your feedback as: observation of a behavior (just the facts)+ impact of that behavior (share how you feel) + question or request. Write it out first to make sure it's communicating what you want.
  • It's ok to cause some friction, that's a natural part of working together. But know how you can move past it.

Prevention

  • Retrospectives allow people to know their feelings have been heard. Name friction points in these meetings to acknowledge what didn't work.
  • Team charters and docs can helps align people's work against a common vision and clear responsibilities.
  • The absence of trust is the source of most team dysfunctions. How do you get these issues surfaced within a team? Determine if you agree or disagree with decisions and whether or not you can commit to a decision.
  • If/when you need to go to HR or leadership, state what's been tried and what you think could help now. Be prepared that they may take a different action after weighing the situation.