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How To Reduce Mental Friction

01/20/2021
Friction

It is easy to blame people when they fail to perform.  It is the go-to for many.  However, as a leader you must consider your part of the equation.  What have you done to minimize the mental friction in order for the team to understand and take action?  How many mental calories do your people need to consume to behave in the manner you desire?  In other words, how well do you simplify your vision or instruction to get what you need or want?  This self-examination is powerful and can accelerate the results you desire.  What if you are the problem because your mind's clear vision is challenging for others to see and make actionable?    How can you, as the leader, eliminate or minimize external causes of mental friction? Let's take a look.

"Everything in business is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced it before."-USMC Adapted

Friction dominates the business. It makes simple tasks hard, regularly acts to tear down the individuals' will, and interferes with team cohesion.  Existing friction can result from external factors such as the physical environment, the nature of the work, or the competition.  Inadequate or inaccurate analysis also contributes to friction by causing uncertainty. This uncertainty is sometimes called the "fog of war," where things are not always what the leader expected.  

Friction's most problematic form, however, is self-induced and may be termed internal friction. Fear of the unknown breeds this paralysis. -USMC Adapted

Simplicity is at the root of things.  You can complicate anything.

Unless you can explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough yet. – Albert Einstein

Do people complicate things because of ego or misunderstanding?  Is friction created because you cannot clearly articulate a vision or an outcome?  More complicated equals more friction.  I like the term mental friction to describe the cognitive resistance to take action on a team.  When people fail to act as you desire, consider if you have made what is on your mind simple enough for them to understand.  This personal ownership of reality is powerful as a leader.

Or, are conditions around individuals preventing them from understanding your directions?  The leader's role is to help people adapt to change.  Adaptability is your key to overcoming the effects of friction and its components. Although it is synonymous with flexibility, adaptability also embraces the spirit of innovation.  Organizations should always seek to adopt new tactics, organization, and procedures to the environment's realities. Identify deficiencies in existing practices. Discard outdated structures and modifications to maintain function and utility. The ability to adapt enables teams to be comfortable within an environment dominated by friction. Experience, common sense, and the critical application of judgment all help leaders succeed.

"The essence of loyalty is the courage to propose the unpopular, coupled with a determination to obey, no matter how distasteful the ultimate decision. And the essence of leadership is the ability to inspire such behavior." –J. Alexander

Understanding friction will always be present; leaders should make it their duty to bring subordinates' ideas and criticisms to the surface to be analyzed and evaluated.  Ask for ideas, and you should get them. Second, you must clear a path to your doorstep. Subordinates can use the chain of command, but ideas must rise to the top.  It would help if you allowed subordinates the opportunity to show initiative. Third, because innovation is imprecise people will make mistakes, and you must protect them. "Zero mistakes" is not achievable. Fear of mistakes will not encourage initiative; it stifles it. Lastly, emphasize that you expect an honest expression of the subordinate's best thinking.

"If we wish to think clearly, we must cease imitating; if we wish to cease imitating, we must make use of our imagination. We must train ourselves for the unexpected in place of training others for the cut and dried.  Audacity, and not caution, must be your call." –J. Fuller

Finally, to reduce team friction, consider decentralization.  Decentralization is authorizing subordinates to act, guided by your intent and focus of effort, in situations where judgment and experience dictate the action.  Stay out of their way.  Decentralized decision-making is any process where the decision-making authority gets distributed throughout a larger group. It also connotes a higher power given to lower-level functionaries, executives, and workers. According to Carl Jung, decentralized decision-making also contributes to the core knowledge of group intelligence and crowd wisdom, often in a subconscious way.

Decentralization is the antidote to the bureaucracy that permeates many organizations and produces friction among members.  In other words, it improves decision velocity for your team.  If you want more decisions made faster, let your teams make them autonomously from you as the leader.   You get to react to the results, and your team learns (and improves) at a much faster rate.  Friction gets mitigated by minimizing the number of people making consideration.

To summarize, reducing mental friction for your team requires three concepts; simplicity, adaptability, and decentralization.  Simplifying both tactical and strategic objectives is essential for your team to minimize cognitive load and achieve the results you desire.  The adaptability of the work or your process to achieve goals requires attacking your status quo bias.  Decentralized decision-making throughout your team allows people to control and work without the threat of people above them in your organization.  Bottom-line, reducing mental friction accelerates success or forces organizational change through organic failures necessary to improve team performance.  You must take ownership of existing friction and lead the team toward success.  It is your job as the leader of the group.