Organisational friction: why positive conflict leads to successful business outcomes

Friction in the workplace can never be a good thing, right? Wrong! We think that healthy friction in organisations can only be positive.
Written by
David Spencer
Published on
May 4, 2021
Organisational friction: why positive conflict leads to successful business outcomes

Friction. It exists and permeates through organisations and businesses at all levels, regardless of size, industry, or sector. It’s often viewed as a big negative within an organisation. Why? Well, the very definition of friction is: ‘conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions.’* Conflict can often be seen as undesirable in the workplace, as it has the potential to create divides between individuals and teams, leading to operational problems, which ultimately hurts the bottom line.

* Google Dictionary

Bob Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford, launched The Friction Project to uncover the answers to these very questions. He’s worked with and spoken to many individuals across different industries and at various levels within their organisation to try and uncover how friction has affected their teams and whether removing or adding it can bring about better business results.

Where do we find friction and what impact does it have?

Friction can manifest itself in different ways within organisations, it might be frustrated employees who don’t feel listened to, conflict within teams where you have two or more opposing viewpoints or lengthy, bureaucratic processes that frustrate efficiency and effectiveness. We’ve all likely experienced some degree of each of these frustrations within our organisations, even within our own teams and role. How does it make us feel? Friction can sap our energy, stifle our creativity, disempower us as individuals and ultimately make our work lives less enjoyable and harder than they need to be.

In Turning friction into fire: lessons from season 2, Rachel Julkowski mentions that,

“When people are exhausted and frenzied they actually get stupid.”

In other words, when we are over-burdened by friction and frustration we become lethargic and worn down to the point where we almost stop being able to think clearly about what we’re doing. Working our teams to the point of exhaustion may have short-term benefits in the form of perceived higher productivity or the completion of a task or project by an immovable deadline, but what’s really hiding under the surface? How much technical debt do we introduce through not paying proper attention to what we’re doing?

Move slow and build things

People under high states of pressure and stress make poor decisions and don’t always act in the best interests of the team or the project. Executives that operate on the basis that value is only derived by the number of hours that someone logs on a timesheet are potentially deluding themselves, as higher quantities of hours doesn’t automatically translate to higher rates of productivity and effectiveness. Sometimes we need to slow down and give our employees the opportunity to find a bit of solid ground amidst the constant shifting landscape that we find ourselves in nowadays.

We need to create environments for our teams and employees where the value of what is created is not measured purely by the amount of hours put in, but instead by the quality of the output and the outcomes that we generate for the end users and client as a result.

Building trust, honesty and openness

Employees that don’t feel empowered by their leaders or trusted by their peers will actively avoid speaking up when they see something wrong. For example, when asking the question ‘how long is this going to take?’ – the estimates given are grounded in optimism rather than realism, as the employee fears being the person to say that it might be wrong. As a result, everyone proceeds using the optimistic estimate and then poor planning ensues, according to Professor Hayagreeva ‘Huggy’ Rao in Agile is a state of being.

People need to feel that it’s safe to challenge others, to speak up when something isn’t right, or when there’s a better way. Ultimately what we’re talking about is creating an atmosphere of trust and openness, where teammates can challenge one another and raise issues in a constructive and productive way without fear of repercussions. This can lead though to conflict, the opinion of one in the group may go against the prevailing thought of the rest, so how do we let people know that it’s ok to do this?

In Constructive chaos vs. clusterf***s, Dominic Price, Head of R&D at Atlassian, actively promotes conflict in his teams. He wants to see the emotion and people disagreeing and he wants to see tension on a semi-regular basis, as otherwise you start to wonder whether the team is actually truly collaborating.

This behaviour is actively encouraged here at Distinction. “Be reasonably unreasonable” is our second brand value. We know that we can only make great work if we’re prepared to challenge. Sometimes this means challenging each other and we’re not afraid to say what we think when it’s for the good of the work – even if it’s uncomfortable. From those at the beginning of their career with us right through to the senior leadership team, we encourage the challenge because we know that if we all agree, all of the time, we don’t have the right people in the room.

Photograph of heated discussion
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If we all agree, all of the time, how do we discover a better way of doing things?

Training our teams to conflict constructively

Simply telling people that it’s ok to conflict with each other and argue isn’t enough, it’ll likely lead to situations more reminiscent of what we all experienced on the playground at school. We need to establish some “rules of engagement” according to Michael Dearing, Founder of Harrison Metal, in The basic hygiene of management, by setting boundaries and training our teams how to conflict constructively. Individuals need to listen to the other person’s viewpoint that they’re making, take the time to really ‘hear’ what they’re saying and understand their reasoning. By skipping ahead to the conclusion of what is being said we fail to understand the ‘why’ of what someone is saying and only focus on the ‘what’. Once we know ‘how’ someone arrived at a conclusion, then we are starting the discussion from a position of a shared foundation and basis, meaning that it’s more likely that you’ll reach an agreed and shared outcome at the end of the conflict.

Learn to celebrate success and failure

A big source of conflict and friction within any organisation is the inherent finger pointing and chastisement of things that don’t go to plan or fail. So, what then happens when people always respond with a negative mindset when something doesn’t go right? We stifle creativity within our teams, we create a culture where people are afraid to take risks, to innovate, to challenge each other on established thinking and instead do what’s deemed to be ‘safe’. We ignore the opportunities that may exist to do things in better ways, to invest in new areas that could generate new revenue for the business or even bring new and diverse talent into our teams.

Of course, relentless and repeated failure isn’t something that should be looked upon positively, as doing too much of it may mean you’re out of business! But instead, leaders can change the tone by focusing on the fact that we’ve given it a go, we took a risk and sure it didn’t pay off, but what did we learn? Will it make us more dynamic and ready to react to changes in the landscape or the environment that we operate in?

Employees need to feel secure and leaders need to be able to offer that in their communication when discussing failure. Michael Dearing suggests that leaders should focus on what went well, what didn’t and therefore what can we learn for next time? But still finish off by reassuring that despite things not going to plan that we’re still on the right track overall (The basic hygiene of management).

So, is friction something that should be avoided?

It’s clear that friction within organisations has the potential to create large amounts of conflict, which in turn can cause detrimental impacts to a business and affect its overall profitability. But my worry is, were we to remove friction completely, that businesses would be afraid to take risks, employees would be afraid to innovate and fear speaking up when something isn’t right, all of which could harm businesses more in the long run.

We need to train our people to conflict constructively, to question each other’s viewpoints, but do so from a position of respect and taking the time to understand how the other person arrived at their point. We need to let them know that it’s ok to fail from time to time as well as succeed, as we may learn something that allows us to be more dynamic and respond to changing situations in the future. As far as I’m concerned, healthy friction should be welcomed and actively encouraged in organisations. If conflict is handled positively it can only lead to successful business outcomes.

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