Nearly 20 years ago, I considered a job offer I knew would be completely outside my comfort zone. It was a sizable promotion and involved using a broad set of skills I did not possess at the time.

Feeling uniquely unqualified for the role, I turned to my father for some advice. This was his wise counsel: “If you don’t feel uncomfortable, you’re not learning anything. You will figure it out.”

Those words were exactly what I needed to hear at that moment, and his advice has tailed me ever since. My discomfort – and even my moments of mild professional terror – are a sure sign that I’m challenging myself and forcing growth. In contrast, when I start to feel too comfortable or too confident, it’s a sign that I’m stagnating and not fulfilling my potential.

Serving a healthy dose of team discomfort

How can marketers apply this concept of healthy discomfort to content teams? And, even more importantly, how can we tell the difference between healthy discomfort and unhealthy stress?

Many years ago, I was introduced to the term “creative abrasion.” The idea is most often credited to Jerry Hirshberg, president at Nissan Design International. Yet, in my research, I found that the term also came to prominence through the work of Dorothy Leonard and Susan Straus, who discussed it in the Harvard Business Review. Dorothy and Susan explain that homogenous teams – led by managers who typically dislike conflict – tend to share similar interests, education, and points of view. They agree on most things, and they gradually become complacent in that bubble of agreement.

Healthy, innovative teams, the duo posits, bring together diverse people with different mindsets and ways of solving problems. It is in the clash of ideas – the friction – that the best ones rise to the surface. To produce excellent results, we need our existing assumptions and ideas to be challenged and our eyes to be opened to the existence of viable alternatives.

Amplify, don’t minimize, your differences

Diversity – whether in the form of race, ethnicity, economic background, life experience, gender, or what have you – adds the potential to introduce beneficial “creative abrasion” into our marketing teams and processes. That friction surfaces important questions, forces us to accept that our view of the world isn’t the only one, and challenges us to build connections on the basis of a wider range of needs and experiences. In short, it makes all of us better at what we do.

There’s plenty of research to back this up. A report from McKinsey in 2015 showed public companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity were 1.35 times more likely to outperform their industry’s financial returns mean. Another study published in Economic Geography found that teams with higher levels of cultural diversity may be significantly more innovative. That study examined over 7,500 London-based companies and found businesses with culturally diverse leadership teams were more likely to develop new products compared to those with more homogeneous teams. (If you’re interested in these types of studies, McKinsey published an excellent review of the research available, Why Diverse Teams are Smarter.)

In an interview for I-CIO Global, Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill explains, “You do not get innovation usually without diversity and conflict. Many leaders will say to us, ‘I don’t want conflict – frankly, I don’t know if I want a whole lot of [diverse perspectives].’ But fundamentally as a leader if you want to get innovation, you have to amplify the differences in your organization – not minimize them.”

In marketing, where our value is often gauged by how well our last project performed, this type of creative friction is absolutely critical to growing our success. Do you lead a team where challenging existing ideas is encouraged or one where conflict is avoided at all costs? Is a productive (and kind) spirit of creative friction allowed to permeate both your content processes and the output that comes from it?
Creative friction is absolutely critical to content marketing success – it helps us surface new questions, expand our perspectives, and build audience connections on a wider range of needs and experiences, says @clare_mcd, via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

There’s greater power in a “culture clash” than a “culture fit”

Marketers may find the conversation around creative abrasion particularly interesting given the push over the last decade to see “cultural fit” as an important recruiting metric. In human resource circles, it’s common to test for cultural fit during the hiring process.

Ostensibly the process is about ensuring whether the new hire can buy into the company’s goals or values. But, often, it serves a different, and more damaging, purpose.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix, summed up the problem nicely: “What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they’d like to have a beer with. You end up with this big, homogenous culture where everybody looks alike, everybody thinks alike, and everybody likes drinking beer at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with the bros.”

It boils down to an inherently biased way to decide whether or not the candidate will be “one of us” – a look-alike who sees the world as we do, won’t try to rock the boat, and won’t challenge our existing practices and processes.

In other words, it’s the opposite of what we should be looking for when bringing on fresh talent because diverse teams – with their inherent friction – are indeed healthier teams.

Rethink how you hire and collaborate

What can marketers do differently to support creative abrasion? One way is to revamp your recruiting processes to prioritize diversity of thought and experience over team homogeneity. Here are some ways to start:

  • Understand how hiring for fit can hinder success. The concept of hiring for cultural fit isn’t all bad, as long as you clearly demarcate “fit” as related to your organization’s values or mission, and not simply conforming to a certain pedigree, background, or set of experiences.

    Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint Marketing, prides himself on running a flat organization, meaning there’s very little top-down control or management. Since the agency must meet tight deadlines under pressure, it’s absolutely critical that Ed hires people who are collaborative without regard to status.

    For example, in the above-referenced WSJ article, Mitzen says he looks for those who show kindness when they think they are not being watched and considers that information as part of his screening criteria. During the in-person interview process, he asks the drivers of his company’s car service how candidates behaved on the ride. “If they’re a jerk to the car-service guy, that’s a warning sign,” he says.

    Consider what cultural or personality markers you look for when hiring. And even more important, make certain that when interviewing potential candidates, a sense of familiarity (i.e., this person is a lot like me) doesn’t equate to increasing the homogeneity of our teams.

  • Look for passion and a deep desire to learn. Don’t get stuck making hiring decisions based only on factors like work history or education. Instead, look for evidence of adaptability, passion, and self-development. How well does the candidate adjust to new situations, take responsibility for ongoing education, or take on challenging projects that will test their skills and capabilities?

    Further, look for signs that a candidate can learn to be comfortable with discomfort. How will they operate on a team that might challenge their assumptions or disagree with their ideas?

  • Resist back-channeling hires. A 2017 study by LinkedIn found that 70% of new hires found jobs at companies where they had an existing connection. This is natural, of course, as it’s the path of least resistance for hiring managers who are faced with an overwhelming stack of resumes or portfolios to consider. Yet this kind of “hire-who-you-know” strategy can have unintended consequences, including limiting team diversity (particularly in smaller companies). To hire for greater diversity in #contentmarketing, don’t base decisions only on factors like work history or education. Instead, look for evidence of the candidate’s adaptability, passion, and self-development, says @clare_mcd, via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

    Yes, hiring someone who knows someone can be useful, particularly when they come through a trusted referral. But ask yourself whether these back-channel hires are supporting the diverse thinking that will benefit your team or just increasing the effects of group think? And if the latter, how can you expand your recruiting efforts to support greater diversity?

  • Expand the diversity of your candidate pool. A fascinating 2016 study by Harvard Business Review looked at hiring in academic settings, specifically investigating how the composition of the “finalists” list can affect hiring outcomes. It found that when a finalist pool of four applicants included just one woman, that woman would not be hired. Rather than introduce an opportunity to increase diversity, it accentuated that the woman was different from other candidates, which drove them, ultimately, to decide to maintain the status quo.

    When hiring with an eye toward building a more diverse team, this effect should be top of mind. Does your finalist pool include just one token diverse candidate or is it a balance that reflects a genuine desire to incorporate diverse ideas and experiences into your team dynamics?

  • Approach diversity through external partnerships, too. Don’t stop at just the composition of your internal team members; look at the content professionals you’re contracting as photographers, designers, writers, programmers, and other areas, as well as the influencers and other partners with whom you collaborate. How can you do a better job diversifying your network of independent talent? Don’t expect the right mix of candidates to come to you. You need to put in the time to develop these relationships.

Embrace friction as part and parcel to an effective creative process

It’s important that content teams become more aware and open to the valuable role creative abrasion can play in our work. Though disagreement in the workplace is often seen more rude than healthy, Liane Davey, co-founder of 3COze Inc. and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, pointed out in HBR that doesn’t have to be the case: “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation, and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks,” she says.

Ensure your team members understand that disagreement, discussions, and conflicting ideas are beneficial to content creativity, and that abrasion will be both accepted and supported as part of your team dynamic.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].