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Updated March 23, 2023

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Friction is the amount of effort required to transmit or receive a message on a specific communication channel. It includes the time and thought that it takes to plan, edit, or create the message.

Friction is relative. It depends on the transmitter, the receiver, and the channel used to communicate. For some individuals, speaking can be a low-friction channel if everyone is in close proximity or on a conference call. It can also be a high-friction channel for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Too much friction in a communication medium slows us down, but low friction isn’t always desirable. If a message can be sent too quickly, it might mean that workers invest less time in processing and composing responses, which can lead them to communicate less thoughtfully or without considering the impact of their words on others.

cautionLow friction can also make it so that teams go too fast in the wrong direction. In an HBR podcast, communications expert Nick Morgan describes how fast-moving communication modes like chat (or even, in some cases, slower modes like email) bombard people to the point that they intuit negative information or intent when it’s not present, especially without all the in-person cues about intent that humans are much better at interpreting. The faster we compose and respond to messages, the less clear they become, opening gaps for the receivers to fill in.

The research shows that we both think we’re better at expressing ourselves in email and other virtual forms than we actually are, and we also think we’re better at understanding other people than we actually are.Nick Morgan, communication expert

Distributed teams that want to communicate effectively will benefit from defining what they consider to be an acceptable level of friction in their communication architecture, depending on whether information is being broadcast or a team is trying to reach a common understanding.


We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.Stephen Covey, bestselling author, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything*

“Assuming good intent” has become a common recommendation for modern workplaces.* However, it poses some problematic dynamics in distributed teams, especially those that strive to be diverse and inclusive.

cautionAsking individuals to assume good intent in written communications shifts the burden towards the receiver of the message and not the originator. When it comes to communication in distributed teams, what someone meant to say matters less than what was understood. This intent-impact gap can be perilous. No matter how well-intentioned, the wrong message can set a distributed team back significantly. Effective communication between two or more parties requires that everyone understands the message in the same way.

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