Skip to main content

We associate friction with physics but it may be time to consider its crucial role in management. In a sense leaders do that when they moan about bureaucratic sludge, bottlenecks and the need for everything to go faster.

But Stanford Graduate School of Business professors Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva (Huggy) Rao believe managers need to move beyond complaining and occasional anti-bureaucratic thrusts, becoming more scientific about how it affects their organizations. After seven years of studying friction in organization, the two professors argue we need to dramatically eliminate friction from our processes … except for where we need to add more friction in to avoid screwups.

That means leaders must become skilled friction fixers, trustees of other people’s time.

“Trustees take pride in spotting and removing obstacles that squander people’s time and money, frustrate them and leave them feeling helpless and exhausted,” Professors Sutton and Rao write in The Friction Project. But they add trustees also take pride in knowing when to slow down, struggle or stop, the elements of constructive friction. That’s essential as well.

Negative friction is easy to spot. It starts with wasteful meetings and also involves cumbersome systems and processes, jerks and blabbermouths, convoluted emails from bosses, outdated traditions and antiquated technologies. One exasperated service rep showed the duo how she had to switch between at least 15 applications and 20 windows on the 13-inch company laptop to serve one customer. Such friction chips away at the zest for work and turns off customers and suppliers. Management can be a prime contributor. Legendary management guru Peter Drucker said much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.

The two professors soon learned on their journey that the goal of becoming a frictionless organization is misguided. Leaders shouldn’t want to make the wrong things too easy for employees and customers – or, indeed, themselves. “At times, organizations need to make things harder or impossible to do,” they note, citing as an example on the customer side of a six-year-old, Brooke, who asked Amazon’s Alexa to “play doll house with me and get me a dollhouse,” which arrived the next day with the $162 price tag on her parents’ credit card.

“Unfettered and overconfident leaders can squander a lot more cash than Brooke did when they fall in love with flawed ideas and there are insufficient organizational speed bumps to prevent them from rushing their half-baked creations to market,” Professors Sutton and Rao write.

Another complication, they note, is that deciding whether friction is good or bad depends on where you sit. A U.S. hospital where friction was added so that ultrasounds were less automatic for patients suffering from abdominal pain was a win for the patients who saved time and the insurance companies that saved money but not the already overburdened doctors who now needed to justify tests were necessary by finding a radiologist, often on low-staffed nights and weekends, who would concur before the ultrasound technician carried out the test.

“When and where you want a little friction, or a lot, requires weighting an organization’s goals, values, talents and constraints, including money, traditions, rules and laws, and power dynamics,” they write. It’s both art and science. You need the will – and the skill – to do it well. Otherwise, you can make the situation worse.

They warn that if you are more powerful than your colleagues and customers, you are at the risk of being clueless about their friction troubles and how you add to their misery. They call it “power poisoning” and the first symptom is privilege that spares you from hassles, humiliations and barriers heaped on lesser folk. You become oblivious, downplaying the issues troubling others. Worse, you might think you know everything that is worth knowing about your organization and have become selfish, giving priority to your own comfort.

They also warn that “addition sickness” reigns in organizations. Humans can’t resist adding more and more stuff to their workplaces. “We are wired to see stuff we add as righteous and essential,” they note. So we glorify the procedures, forms and rules we institute.

Subtraction is necessary. They developed, with Leidy Klotz, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of Subtract, a rule of halves. Cut some burden – perhaps the number and length of standing meetings or the number of interviews for job candidates – by 50 per cent and take some time to watch the impact. Then add back what you really need.

Pay attention to co-ordination pitfalls. In trying to weave everyone’s work together, needless friction can develop and Professors Sutton and Rao say these can become orphan problems that everyone knows about but nobody feels accountable for fixing given the mix of people and departments involved. This has been called “co-ordination neglect”: We fixate on parts of the organization and ignore how the parts ought to work together.

Organizations, of course, involve endless co-ordination. Managers are co-ordinators. But they also must become friction fixers, determining where to subtract needless friction and add helpful friction.


  • Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says a great workplace needs three things: Purpose, pride and fun.
  • Influencer marketing is hitting a dead end, according to Mark Schaefer, who in 2012 wrote the first book on the phenomenon. Influencers are monetizing their lives rather than any skill set. Much of influence today means being a daily entertainer, and they are burning out.
  • In-depth research on male and female directors of more than 200 companies on the major stock exchanges in the U.S. and Europe found women improve decision-making by tending to come to meetings well-prepared and concerned with accountability; they break away from the norms, willing to admit where their knowledge is lacking and ask in-depth questions; and by their approach help create a less competitive atmosphere between directors.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe