Why a fraction of friction equals a healthy workplace

A little butting of heads between colleagues isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When managed effectively, a contest of ideas can foster growth and innovation
Managing respectful debate at work takes time and clear outlines and expectations.

Managing respectful debate at work takes time and clear outlines and expectations. Photo: Getty

Workplaces encompass a range of personalities and neurodiversity, each with different ideas, egos, and ambition, so it’s not a surprise to encounter some level of friction on the job.

Friction is often seen as a negative, but rather than trying to avoid it all costs or pretend it’s not happening, workplace psychology experts say it can be used to advantage the organisation.

“Friction is an opportunity every single day to generate enough creative tension to say, ‘We really want to win at this problem’, which will really drive people to try their hardest,” executive coach and psychotherapist Dan Auerbach said.

Auerbach says workplace friction is an opportunity to open your understanding of different viewpoints.

“A chief financial officer’s perspective may be how to deploy capital best through an organisation. They may conflict with somebody in a revenue-raising function – both have valid perspectives,” Auerbach said.

“In those situations, you might get them to perspective-take – take on each other’s portfolio for the sake of a meeting, and seeing it from the other’s vantage point, ask ‘How would you solve this?’.

“Friction can help teams become skilled at understanding that a lot of different considerations must come together to come up with a really novel or best-in-class solution.”

What causes friction in the workplace?

University of Western Australia work psychology lecturer Dr Darja Kragt explains workplace friction can be broadly separated into three types: Task conflict, process conflict, and relationship conflict.

“Task conflict is about the task – what are we doing, what’s our goal?” Kragt said.

“We know friction or disagreement about a task is actually beneficial because it helps people define the task more clearly.

“Process conflict is about the process – how are we going to achieve the goals that we agreed on, or who is doing what?

“It’s similar to task friction in that some level of conflict actually helps to devise a better way of doing things.”

Relationship conflict, however, is more toxic and potentially damaging.

“This is based on personality and is the type of conflict you want to avoid [as] it’s always going to be detrimental,” Kragt said.

“If relationship conflict spills over into the other two types [of conflict], that’s where [the workplace] can become dysfunctional.”

How to foster a healthy level of friction

Although harmony is needed in the workplace to promote trust and tie professionals together, an overly harmonious environment risks an absence of ideas.

“We want to avoid that ‘group-think’,” Kragt said.

“If we all have exactly the same opinion, exactly the same perspective, we never change anything and there quickly becomes the point of stagnation.”

On the flip side, too much friction at work can lead to absenteeism, stifled productivity and burnout.

So how do organisations strike that perfect balance of enough friction for growth but not so much it becomes disruptive?

Lead by example

Managers must cultivate a collaborative environment where ideas are welcome and staff are engaged to want to contribute their thoughts.

“You need to be seen as someone who is actually bringing different perspectives to the table,” Kragt said.

“That shows other people that this is something we do as a team, and they feel safe to do so too.”

From there, Auerbach says managers need to be able to decide on a strategy and be clear in communicating it to the team – even if not everyone agrees.

“There’s always a balancing act between openness and direction and knowing how to do both is the art of good leadership,” he said.

Examine the source of the friction

“Ask ‘What is the cultural tone here’? How do we deal with friction? Are we good at leaning into it? Do we know how to get to the deeper concerns from those frictions? Do we really float those up for conscious consideration? Or do we turn away from friction and ignore it?” Auerbach said.

Harness the friction

“There are lots of exercises companies can do to use friction to your organisation’s advantage,” Auerbach said.

“Getting team members to do a perspective-take as a regular practice, helping staff become more aware of how their personality type impacts how they show up for work, active brainstorming sessions, or troubleshooting of ideas where you might consider all the reasons something might not work.”

Minimise relationship conflict

Kragt says managing a clash of personalities in the workplace can be tricky, but it’s important to focus on tasks and processes.

“What we really want to achieve is to overcome the tendency to get stuck in that relationship conflict, talk it out and find a way to move forward by focusing on the common goal – you don’t have to like each other,” Kragt said.

Kragt says it can be useful to get a third party involved, such as HR or an external mediator.

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