How to overcome friction in the workplace

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Three signs that your workplace may be experiencing friction: gossip, rumours or complaints, low morale, and a reluctance to contribute.

Sometimes, friction is a good thing — like healthy competition between teams, colleagues debating how to best solve a customer’s challenge or turning down a new idea because it’s not driving towards the overall vision. However, if friction comes from a negative place and/or isn’t properly managed it leads to conflict — and that’s when it becomes a real problem for your business.

Verbal abuse and insults, physical threats and assaults are not uncommon in the workplace. And just 1% of employees say they have never experienced workplace stress. Left unchecked, this stress will lead to poor mental health and wellbeing, which as Jacqueline Shakespeare has written about previously, is the silent killer in every organisation.

So what’s causing the friction that leads to unhealthy conflict?

In our experience, friction comes from 3 key sources: people, process and technology.

Here we consider each in turn…

People: leaders must be comfortable with uncertainty and are humble

To be a leader in the 21st century takes a special kind of person. Today the pace of change is so quick that leaders need to feel comfortable with uncertainty. Rather than planning for 1, 3 or 5-years into the future, they need to be looking at what they need to do to enable the business to be successful within the next 90-days.

Today’s leaders are also humble. They might have the hierarchy, status and salary but they know they don’t have all the answers and accept they’re no longer the most important person in the room. They understand that to be successful, they need to find the right expertise and pull together groups of people to solve problems, and empower those ‘experts’ to use their talents.

Process: leaders need to encourage guiding coalitions

Research from the work management platform Asana shows that we spend over 60% of our time on work about work. Imagine if you simplified the governance that sits around your delivery models — what impact could that have on your organisation? And the bottom line?

The biggest problem we see in an organisation are steering committees — groups of pretty senior people who regularly sit in lots of meetings to get updates and yet more actions to add to their growing ‘to-do’ list. They’re a massive distraction to actually getting work done.

Instead, we advocate the idea of moving towards a guiding coalition. Here, leaders recognise the power of many to solve a problem. It works because it’s based around 5 principles:

  • Influence: bring together a group of respected individuals who can effectively lead change.
  • Real world experience: the coalition knows what does/doesn’t work and can provide shortcuts to ‘lessons learned’.
  • Shared objective: develop a compelling and vivid vision for the future that people understand and buy into.
  • Empower the team: leaders communicate ‘what’ needs to be done and ‘why’, but leaves it up to the team to determine the ‘how’.
  • Remove the barriers: leaders focus on removing the obstacles that stop the team from being successful.

Technology: impoverish legacy constraints

Technology debt can be one of the biggest burdens an organisation possesses. Legacy systems and outdated processes hinder an organisation’s ability to respond to the rapidly changing market conditions. Without that agility, they seriously risk being overtaken by challenger brands who aren’t wrestling with the demons of their past.

To remain a strong contender within the market, technology debt needs to be reduced. But while that requires you to make some brave decisions, you don’t necessarily need to be as bold as to rip and replace an ERP system. Instead, look at where it makes sense to impoverish any constraints so they no longer hold the business back — or how to integrate new technologies into the business that pivot the insights from legacy systems back into the business to add value.

So where do you start? 

Look to transform through the line

A big mistake organisations make is thinking they need to change everything, all at the same time.

We encourage you to think about the capabilities you find yourself changing most often, or the difficult work-arounds you’ve had to implement into business-as-usual to overcome broken processes or clunky integrations. And this could either be customer-facing or in your back-office systems.

Write them all down. Prioritise them. Take them one-step at a time. And determine what you need to do to deliver value back to the business within the next 90-days.

By taking this iterative approach to change — rather than a big bang, big reveal — not only will you find yourself in the exclusive ‘successful 16%’ club, it will deliver value to:

Your employees: they’ll feel empowered and their work more meaningful, which will lead to higher levels of motivation, engagement and productivity.

Your customers: by focusing on removing failures and ruthlessly optimising, they get the help they need and end up with a better experience.

Your business: because your people feel valued it’s going to reduce attrition, only focusing on the things that really deliver value reduces unnecessary spend on ‘pet projects’, optimising experiences and capabilities reduces your failure rate — and naturally, the business becomes leaner.


Find out more…

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Written by
Sullivan & Stanley