Why friction in the workplace will inevitably sink your productivity

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] April 10, 2018

In this excerpt from his new book, Smart Teams: How to Work Better Together, Dermot Crowley outlines some of the damaging actions that can cause friction in a workplace and the impact they can have on the productivity of teams.

While some of our work is done alone, most of it involves working with others. When we work with others we cooperate, working together to achieve shared results. We commonly do this in the context of communications, meetings and projects, although we may cooperate in many other ad-hoc ways.

Our challenge is the unproductive friction we create for others when we cooperate, and of course the friction they create for us.

A good friend of mine is an experienced sailor who has competed in gruelling events such as the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. He knows how to make a boat go fast, and he knows what slows a boat down. He once told me a story of how a bucket attached to a rope fell overboard during a race, causing a sudden and almost immediate drag on the boat. Now, everyone on board that racing yacht would have known the drastic impact such an accident would have on their speed, and they wasted no time in cutting it loose.

Matt went on to tell me of a more insidious form of drag when sailing: the build-up of barnacles on a boat’s hull produces an uneven surface that creates friction as the hull cuts through the water. In a race, this kind of drag, being more gradual, can go unnoticed until it is too late. This is why some boat owners, especially of racing yachts, can spend thousands each year having their hulls cleaned, particularly before a race. In the modern workplace, we face similar challenges. Sometimes someone will do something that completely disrupts our productivity. For instance, our priorities and schedule for the whole day may be upended because another department needs an issue resolved urgently. It is as though a bucket were dropped behind our boat, causing a drag that slows us down instantly.

But sometimes our productivity is disrupted in a more insidious way by a daily build-up of little things that affect our ability to work. These disruptions turn our work flow into work friction.

Few people set out to cause friction. Some might have little regard for other people’s time, but most of us do our best to get our work done, and the friction we cause is simply the collateral damage of our busyness. This friction is a major productivity drain, however, and when compounded across the team, quickly adds up.

Productivity friction

So, what does friction look like? And how can we turn it into flow? Friction is the loss of productivity and effectiveness that occurs in the ‘gap’ between two people. It is that brief loss of focus when we are distracted by an interruption. It is the wasted time spent in a meeting that has no agenda and no real focus. It is the frustration we feel when an urgent request derails our day and the priorities we had planned. It is the sense of overwhelm we feel every time we open our inbox to find hundreds of new messages waiting for our attention.

None of these issues are major problems in themselves, but over days and weeks they add up to create a friction that makes our work harder than it needs to be.

Poor productivity behaviours

In a team where friction rules, you will find the following behaviours affecting the productivity of all concerned:

Meetings

  • Participants turn up late to meetings.
  • Participants arrive unprepared.
  • The wrong people are invited.
  • They fail to follow through on agreed actions.
  • Meetings are called at short notice.
  • Meeting agendas and outcomes are fuzzy.

 Emails

  • We send too many emails.
  • Our communications are not expressed clearly.
  • The desired actions are buried in the body.
  • We copy people into the email unnecessarily.
  • We write fuzzy subject lines.
  • Every email is marked ‘urgent’.

 Delegation

  • We choose the wrong people for the job.
  • We delegate at the last minute.
  • We don’t take the time to delegate well.
  • We delegate all responsibility but no power.
  • We micromanage the delegation.
  • We don’t provide enough support when needed.

 Interruptions

  • We make too many interruptions.
  • We show a lack of awareness and empathy.
  • We interrupt just because we have a thought.
  • We make negotiation hard for the other person.
  • We make every interruption an urgent issue.

Deadlines

  • We leave work tasks until the last minute.
  • We create unnecessary urgency.
  • We expect instant responses.
  • We forget or fail to meet deadlines.

All of these examples of poor productivity behaviour cause friction, not just between two individuals, but across the team.

If we do not manage it, friction will pile on top of friction. What if we could reduce the friction that occurs when we work with others? We probably cannot totally eradicate it, but if we reduced it just a little in every interaction, and we did this across our whole team, the productivity gain would be huge.

In his book Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?, British rower Ben Hunt-Davis talks about ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, a concept he learned from the British cycling performance director David Brailsford. This idea suggests that 1 per cent improvements in different areas such as training, diet and aerodynamics would aggregate to a massive overall performance improvement.

If we were to reduce the productivity friction in many areas of our work, such as our emails, our meetings and our project collaborations, we would enjoy a massive increase in productivity. And if we did this consistently across the team, we would create a more productive culture – a culture where flow was the norm.

Friction versus flow cultures

Running through my son’s recent end-of-term report, I noticed he was marked as late on several days over the term. For me this was unacceptable. His response was, ‘But Dad, all my friends are late more often than I am!’ In my head, I recalled much the same conversation with my own parents, and my reply to my son was very similar to theirs: ‘I don’t care what your friends do. This is my expectation of you …’

In the workplace, our productivity behaviours cannot be measured against the group norm. Just because most people are late to meetings does not make it okay. We need to measure ourselves against a higher standard, one that is not diminished by group behaviours.

The group norm must not dictate our behaviours. Our behaviours must dictate the group norm.

The culture of a team is partly dictated by the behaviours and habits of the individuals in that team. In a friction culture, poor productivity behaviours across the team cause disruption rather than collaboration. The common feeling is of ‘busyness’. In a flow culture, on the other hand, people don’t talk about how busy they are. We are all busy. Move on. They instead talk about how productive they are, even if their schedule is full. (When people ask me if I am busy at the moment, I now refuse to say ‘yes,’ replying instead, ‘No, my schedule is productively full.’ This is not just about positive spin. It is about mindset.)

Many friction cultures feel like they are always short on resources. There is much talk about how short-staffed we are, how we have too much to do and not enough time, so we can’t get anything done. Sound familiar? In flow cultures, we not only use our time more effectively because we are organised, focused and proactive, but we get more done because we are resourceful. We find a way. We work it out. We are in control of getting what is important done on time. How do we move from a friction culture to a flow culture?

Beyond personal productivity

Increased productivity, especially sustained increased productivity, does not just happen by itself. Productivity must be led by leaders who make it a priority, and who passionately lead by example so their team models their way of working.

For greatest impact and leverage, leaders and managers at all levels in the business should put the productivity of their team on the agenda, and make it a personal priority to support and lead the productivity effort. Cultures are formed around a set of principles and behaviours that are modelled by everyone, starting with the leadership team. If your work style is reactive, disorganised and chaotic, the culture of your organisation will mirror this.

As a leader, you have an opportunity to boost the productivity of those around you, and to set up your organisation for many years of sustained productivity.

Dermot Crowley is a productivity thought leader, author, speaker and trainer. He works with leaders, executives and professionals in many of Australia’s leading organisations, helping to boost the productivity of their people and teams. His new book, Smart Teams: How to Work Better Together, published by Wiley, will be released on April 30. For more information, visit www.dermotcrowley.com.au or email dermot.crowley@adapttraining.com.au.