Why Your Management Group Needs A Bit Of Friction

We all desire to work in a harmonious workplace. For our team to have gelled and for decisions to be made smoothly with unanimous support for all shared ideas and suggestions.
Surely that’s the goal for all teams, less friction equals less stress which equals better performance. That’s why corporations spend money and invest time in team building exercises and away-days. To improve communication and team cohesion.
But what if this nirvana of corporate harmony isn’t exactly what we should be aiming for. What if we’re actually setting our sites on a potential own goal?
My argument, therefore, is that an effective team needs a little bit of friction, in the right place, and at the right time, if it’s going to prevent itself from unanimously driving forwards, towards the wrong end.
My position will be partially based on the psychology of team dynamics, but also on the evidence of operational reality. Whilst it will focus on the implications for and events relating to the risk management field, the lessons will read across into all sectors that employ a team management structure.
The phrase and reality of the ‘Storming, Forming and Norming’ cycle will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in the formation of a new team, unit or organisation. It’s equally relevant of course to those situations where a new member or members join an established team, and the cycle begins again.
The concept is valid and focuses on the creation, or restoration in the case of an existing team, of the ‘natural order of things.’ Team members bump and shuffle as they settle into their ‘rightful place’ in the hierarchy of the team. This process is more straightforward in a formally hierarchical setting of course, where professional grades dictate position, status and decision-making authority.
In a more horizontal organisation, the cycle can last longer and is more likely to end up being resolved through strength of personality rather than competence or ability.
However, once the team settles into the normalised phase of the cycle, most members will, either consciously or sub-consciously, want to avoid a return the pain and instability of the storming phase. This can then lead to a reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ by taking what could be seen as a potentially adversarial position against the team management or other members on certain issues.
This leads to the misnomer of the ‘harmonious team’. Whether this team is the senior management of a company, a Board or an operational security unit, a situation where everyone agrees with each other, no decisions are challenged, and everything is comfortable is the route to disaster.
The psychology of this unwillingness to challenge the collective position on an issue goes beyond not wanting to revert to the storming phase of the team’s development. The primal need to belong to a strong cohesive group, or pack, is hard to fight against. More consciously, a lot of staff will be concerned about job security and the personal implications for ‘challenging the boss’. 
Instead it’s easier to think that rocking the boat will just lead to unnecessary personal aggravation and to believe that the chances are the proposed plan will work out and everything will be ok in the end anyway.
This is particularly the case when previous decisions made by the team have worked out well in the past. A team member who privately disagreed but didn’t speak out will become less inclined to do so on subsequent occasions due to a perception that maybe they were wrong the last time.
They will begin to judge the circumstances of the group decision making process by the outcomes of those previous decisions, rather than the process that was taken to arrive at them. This is known as ‘outcome bias’, judging the decisions made based on how the situation or incident concluded, rather than how they were arrived at or, more importantly, how the situation could have ended as a result of those decisions. 
With all this said, if the team manager employs an inclusive leadership style and encourages descent, then the team becomes a far better forum for decision making than anyone individual member.
So, what’s the issue I have with this?
The issue is that the more a team works together, the smoother the decision-making process comes and the less likely they are to see things differently. They start to become ‘of one mind’ on many issues. This is known as ‘Groupthink’.
Groupthink occurs when a group that is made up of members who may actually be very competent, and thus quite capable of making excellent decisions, nevertheless end up making a poor one as a result of a flawed group process and strong conformity pressures.[1]
This is therefore my key point; the best way to avoid Groupthink is to introduce controlled friction into this well-oiled machine.
Developed by Israeli intelligence in the 1970s, the concept of ‘the tenth man’ is, in its simplest terms, the appointment of a devil’s advocate. If nine members of a ten-person team agree on the way forward, then it is incumbent on the tenth person to disagree, to look for and offer alternative opinions and solutions.
Whilst the number, or sex for that matter of people in the team is clearly irrelevant, the tenth man concept is critical in preventing assumptions becoming facts, perception becoming reality, and the loudest voice shaping the narrative.
In the risk management field one of the clearest needs for the tenth man is in relation to crisis management. The initial stages of a crisis will involve a cycle of overload and starvation of information, matched only by the overwhelming demand for updates and answers from those above and outside of the team.
Information may come from multiple or single sources and is often contradictory or lacking in corroboration or validation. Depending on the nature of the crisis, the degree of pressure will vary, however one constant will be the need to get an understanding of its nature and to establish a course of action – ‘What’s happened and how are we going to respond?’
This pressure, combined with long hours in the crisis room, fatigue and potential emotional connections with those most affected by the crisis, all work towards feeding the Groupthink phenomenon.
This can then lead to a situation where new information coming in is subconsciously weighted in relation to whether it lines up with the working theories of the group. The longer the group has been together and the more ingrained the prevailing theory, the more likely contradictory information will be downgraded or simply dismissed. Conversely, supporting information, no matter how weak its providence, will be given higher credibility than it perhaps deserves. This is known as ‘confirmation bias’ and is the route to disaster for a high-pressure crisis management team.
It is therefore critically important to have someone specifically assigned to ask the difficult and probably unpopular questions ‘But what if it’s not what we think?’, ‘Could it be x instead?’, ‘Do we know y to be a fact or are we assuming it to be true?’ ‘Why are we believing person a and not person b?’
The concept of friction, as a positive benefit, has effectively been enshrined into law in the UK. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) led to the redefinition of the role of the police Custody Officer. This purpose of this officer, usually a Sergeant, is to look after the wellbeing of persons detained in a police station. They will facilitate access to the detained person for the purpose of the investigation, interviews by detectives for example, however they are not part of the investigation.
They are there to ensure that the detained person is afforded their rights, not only on arrival but throughout their detention, and to ensure that all elements of PACE are complied with, even if this frustrates the investigation process. The need for PACE came about as a direct result of abuses of the previous system and high-profile miscarriages of justice during the preceding decades.
The custody officer is intended to be the friction in the machine, to ensure that the weight and pressure on the police to reduce and solve crimes, aren’t translated into breaches of the codes and laws they are there to uphold.
Unfortunately, this ‘good’ friction is sometimes misunderstood and instead viewed as ‘obstruction’ or simply ‘being difficult’ and is why being a Custody Officer is seen as a thankless task.
In 2003 and 2004 the abuse of detainees in sections of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public. The subsequent investigations and prosecutions led to the uncovering of numerous failures both in terms of frontline command and policies.
There were two units involved in Abu Ghraib; the 800th Military Police Brigade (MP) and the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade (MI). The Military Police were responsible for the running and security of the prison whilst the Military Intelligence were responsible for interrogations and intelligence gathering.
Most of the circa 7500 prisoners were housed in tented accommodation in the large prison yard. The most high-value prisoners were held inside two brick-built blocks, 1a and 1b.
The exact course of events that led to the abuses remains the subject of debate and counter-allegation. What is clear is that at some point after the opening of the high-value detainee centre the MI operators complained that the MP gaolers (mostly reservists drawn from US law enforcement and prison service) were being obstructive and that the ‘friction’ was making it hard for them to use the approved ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.
MI successfully lobbied for these gaolers, along with the administration and activities inside blocks 1a and 1b, to be moved from the line command of the MP management and placed instead under their control. Very quickly the ‘friction’ ceased, and the MI activities moved forward without further ‘obstruction’.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that once the chain of command was altered, some of the MP gaolers themselves became directly involved in perpetrating the worst abuses, arguably another example of Groupthink at work[2].
At least one internal US Department of Defence review concluded that the abuses in Abu Ghraib were in part due to the lack of understanding at senior field command level around the need for friction between custodians and investigators, and that this was meant to be there as part of the safety net. Just as with PACE in the UK, the gaolers were under a different line command to the investigators for a reason and were there to prevent just such abuses.
Friction removed, military hierarchical pressure and Groupthink took hold and vulnerable people, arguably on both sides of the prison bars, suffered abuses that led to one of the greatest scandals in US military history and directly led to the alienation of countless numbers of moderate citizens across the Middle East and beyond.
Whilst this is obviously an extreme example, the point remains the same; friction and the encouragement to voice dissent, are both critically important in the decision-making process. Lack of either leads to a situation where the benefits of bringing together exceptional team members are suppressed and the ‘yes man, Groupthink’ culture emerges.
Assumptions remain unchallenged and the team sleepwalks towards the cliff edge.
References/ More Info:[1] Baron, R. S. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37, pp. 219–253). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.[1] Janis, I. L. (2007). Groupthink. In R. P. Vecchio (Ed.), Leadership: Understanding the dynamics of power and influence in organizations (2nd ed., pp. 157–169). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.[1]  https://opentextbc.ca/socialps…[2] Readers interested in knowing more about this should watch Errol Morris’s interview-based documentary ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ which highlights the move from protector to perpetrator that occurred amongst some of the MPs.


Tim Baimbridge MA, BSc (Hons), MSyI is the CEO of Longboat Rönd. He has worked in the security and risk management field for over 35 years including time in the public, private and humanitarian sectors. He has been a member and chair of multiple live Crisis Management Teams (CMTs) and has helped design and deliver CMT training to managers operating in some of the most high-risk environments across the world. His work in relation to problem solving, decision making and team dynamics has been reflected in the improved performance and cohesion of the management teams he has trained.