High-Performing Teams: Maximize the Potential of Creative Abrasion

By Nora Infante, PsyD

High-Performing Teams – Recently, I mentored a group of leaders from all over the world as they completed a Harvard leadership academy.  The academy curriculum was ambitious and challenging in both content and process — especially considering this was on top of their demanding day jobs. They attended live courses virtually (which was an exceptional sacrifice for those on the other side of the globe who had to join at 3 am!) and worked in teams to review, discuss and problem-solve case studies. At the end of this three-month exercise, they traveled to Harvard for a week-long in-person final project.

I learned a lot from accompanying them on this learning journey, and that in turn has been important for my own practice and clients. I’d like to share these learnings with you.

Over the course of the last two years, I have thought a lot about the impact of Zoom meetings on team effectiveness. It was interesting to observe how the leadership academy participants set out to forge connections with the members of their assigned high-performing teams as they tackled their assignments. Without exception, they were positive about their team members. All was very nice and cordial. In working together to identify issues in the case studies, and solve problems presented by the Harvard professors, they interacted courteously and came to consensus-driven conclusions. They were learning a lot of material, getting along well, and feeling (although exhausted) like this was a terrific growth process.

A week before their in-person time on the Harvard campus, their energy and enthusiasm levels took a sharp upward turn. Each, independent of the other, passionately told me about the work with Professor Linda Hill. She is a faculty member at Harvard Business School and her main topic of focus with them was the critical importance of creative abrasion in high-performing teams. We’re all familiar with the concept of constructive criticism but this was a new spin on an attribute all great teams must embrace.

The Trap of Information Symmetry

To begin with, the folks I was working with described the concept of “Information Symmetry.” This describes what happens when a team focuses mainly on the commonality between them and not the differences. It is easy to fall into the pattern of Information Symmetry because it feels good, it affirms connectivity, and a high level of consensus can make the team feel that they are working well together and getting things done in a positive manner.

What it doesn’t do, however, is challenge a team to take risks in sharing novel or “controversial” ideas. It keeps things operating at a good, but not great level.

Acclimating the leaders in the Harvard group to the idea that creative abrasion actually promotes a higher level of learning and thinking helped them step out more affirmatively. They began to ask more critical questions, knowing that creative abrasion is not right or wrong on an individual basis, but instead drives a team to think together on a higher level of analysis and contribution.

Pursuing Creative Abrasion

Immediately the participants were excited to have permission to try new ways of showing up and sharing their reactions and ideas to the case studies. They demonstrated more intellectual vulnerability and vigor and less groupthink. Their eagerness to learn and get the most out of this academy facilitated their joint commitment to doing their best, even if it made them initially uncomfortable. They trusted their professors and curriculum to be teaching them important leadership strategies. And they trusted one another. They were no longer afraid of creative abrasion.

Creative abrasion is essential in innovation and promoting diversity of thought. A surprising 2016 Harvard Business Review survey concluded that only nine percent of respondents believed their team members make a conscious effort to understand different perspectives.

Which brings us back to Zoom.  

The Power of In-Person

When the Harvard leadership academy participants arrived on campus for their week of working together, their understanding, practice, and application of creative abrasion skyrocketed. Why? Because they no longer had to develop interpersonal connections and trust and familiarity via Zoom. They reported that the change in their group dynamics was nearly immediate. The ease with which they worked together delighted every one of them. They asked more penetrating questions, demonstrated more curiosity, and shared less conventional ideas more freely. The energy they received from one another in this exercise was absolutely contagious.  They were having a great time as a team thinking and solving problems together.

What made the difference? All identified the connective power of being together in person — visually seeing the whole person, being able to visually read body language, have actual side conversations — all enabled them to feel very comfortable in building genuine rapport.  These observations support the research that relationship-oriented drivers such as trust, social cohesion, and a sense of belonging are at the core of high-functioning teams’ ability to perform important tasks.

Our participants were greatly enriched by the diversity of perspectives and were surprised at feeling energized by creative abrasion (but kind) vs. feeling put-off or intimidated. By the time the leadership academy concluded, all participants had referenced creative abrasion as one of the significant takeaways they would bring back to their teams and leadership.

High-Performing Teams: Next Steps

It may sound trickier than it is to teach your team and organization to embrace a culture that values and practices creative abrasion. Follow these steps and find your team well on its way to richer and more impactful conversations.

  1. Educate your team on the concept of creative abrasion. There are ample resources available through Harvard Business School.
  2. Emphasize what is to be gained for them as individual leaders and as high-performing teams.
  3. Continuously embed activities and a culture of trust and relationship building.
  4. Have your team practice, track and report back how they are doing in bringing more diversity of thought into their team processes.
  5. Reflect on your organization’s need for discussions requiring creative abrasion and plan to hold them in person.

To learn more about creating genuine creative abrasion in your organization, improving leadership skills, and strengthening high-performing teams, contact Nora for a consultation.