Is Relationship Friction Causing Operational Friction in Your Organization?

February 5, 2016 | David Lee | HCI
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While answering email on Outlook, I got a popup asking if I wanted to proceed with archiving my old emails. I hit “Yes” with some reservation. Previously when I opted for this while trying to work, it slowed my use of Outlook down to a crawl and significantly reduced the speed of other programs, which caused my productivity to slow down as well.

It reminded me of other times when I needed to search for a document and the Indexing option in Windows had stopped—yet again—and I would wait, teeth grinding, while Windows fixed the problem and proceeded with the laborious chore of re-indexing files.

These examples of technology problems interfering with my productivity reminded me of an analogous bottleneck found in many—if not most—organizations and teams.

Rather than “technology issues” getting in the way of people working effectively, it’s “people issues” that so often prevent organizations from operating as effectively or nimbly as leadership would like.

Whether it’s getting software out the door by the launch date, implementing a new strategic initiative, or simply running the organization efficiently with the least amount of oversight and drama, it’s often people not communicating effectively and not working together smoothly that gums up the works.

Consider your own experience with this phenomenon. How many examples of the following have you experienced?

  1. Difficult personalities who sucked the life out of team meetings, or required the team leader to spend major time and energy to keep them from distracting, dominating, and devolving conversations in meetings.
  2. Department heads who didn’t get along, which translated into their avoiding each other as much as possible, engaging in petty power plays, and their departments not working well together.
  3. Departments working in silos because it just seemed too difficult to work through conflicting priorities and issues between one department and the other.
  4. Subpar performance being tolerated because it was just easier for the manager not to deal with the person, the result being that productivity, quality, and morale suffered.

As you think of your own examples of these, ask yourself if this following statement does not ring true:

“Relationship friction leads to operational friction, which results in lower quality work, less productivity, and greater need for managerial oversight and intervention”

When people don’t get along, when they avoid rather than address conflict, when they choose “not making waves” over speaking up, your operations slow down and work less efficiently.

Conversely, strong, honest relationships are like operational lubricant.

They make everything run more smoothly, efficiently, and effortlessly.

For an example of what happens when an organization’s culture focuses on building strong relationships, we need to look no further than Southwest Airlines. In The Southwest Airlines way, the authors note: “For Southwest’s leaders, taking care of business literally means taking care of relationships.”

Leaders at Southwest Airlines have been very clear that the key to their competitive advantage is their relationships. Cultivating strong working relationships and courageously addressing toxicity doesn’t just enable them to provide best-in-class customer service.

Because they do the hard work to make relationships work, they don’t experience the operational friction their competitor’s experience. This allows them to operate far more efficiently than their competitors. One example of their operational excellence is their industry leading turnaround time, which enables them to get their airplanes back in the air in a fraction of the time it takes their competitors.

What to Do With This

Here are some questions to ask yourself to get you get started on enabling this article to make a difference in your organization:

  1. “What relationships on my team and in our organization are causing operational friction?”
  2. “What price am I, and are we as an organization, paying because of this relationship friction?”
  3. “Am I willing, and are we willing, to keep paying that price?”
  4. “Am I willing to start a conversation about how to change this?”
  5. “Do I need to upgrade my courageous conversation skills for me to feel confident these conversations will go well?”
  6. “What first step will I take, whether to have the conversation or to upgrade my skills?”