Fighting the Frustrations of Friction at Work

Learning doesn’t land 

My book, The Learning and Development Handbook, walks you through the necessary groundwork of strategy, stakeholders, consultation and evidence-gathering data to set you up for successful people development in your organization. I offer three frameworks to inspire learning solutions that work and discuss strategies for implementation.  

Yet despite this structured approach, which I have tested time and time again with my clients, I’ve had occasional feedback indicating there’s a problem.  

‘Michelle, we followed your advice and gathered the evidence, got the buy-in and created a learning programme that really suited the needs of the learners, yet when we built it, nobody came.’ 

’We really like your approach, and can see how it would work, but nobody in our organization cares about anything other than their sales figures. How can we get people to understand that learning is important?’ 

’The 3Rs framework is the perfect approach for us. But how do we manage to wrap the community layer into a culture which does not want to share? Knowledge is what gets you a promotion around here.’ 

These quotes are all based on real comments and situations people have contacted me about since my book was published in 2021. I could hear these stories and think I have written a disaster of a book, but I do receive even more stories about how my approach has enabled better stakeholder conversations, better evidence gathering, and more impactful learning. Setting up the groundwork well enables learning to work.  

However, I cannot shake off the feeling of needing to further help those who are still struggling with offering more modern, effective, enjoyable, engaging and efficient workplace learning. I work in people development, so doing nothing is anathema to me! 

What is the problem? 

Consequently, I have spent a good chunk of 2022 investigating why even the best, most suitable, well-researched and evidenced learning programmes are sometimes not landing in their organizations. And I keep coming back to the same thing: friction.  

You may know friction as internal politics, or ‘the way things work around here’, or ‘that’ department who always knows better and do their own thing. You may know friction as processes which are bypassed with more effective workarounds, or technology that doesn’t work as it should, or form filling in triplicate. You may know friction as budget cuts, or understaffing, or a lack of skilled recruits. You are likely to know friction as the frustrations people take out on each other making work a less lovely place. The hierarchical manager belittling a more junior person, the passive-aggressive colleague saying one thing but meaning another, or the closed boardroom with no communication. 

Using learning to solve organizational system issues 

We all know friction in work differently, yet we do know it; where the edges of one organization, department, team or person clashes with another; where HR doesn’t seamlessly work with L&D, or where L&D don’t quite know where the edges are with OD; where sales and marketing are pulling in differing directions. The cogs in the machine get stuck. Things not quite fitting together create friction, an energy which is often wasted, as it is energy which takes away from the organisational mission. It’s often negative energy, taking its toll on the people involved. This is what I kept coming up against when looking at why learning isn’t working: we are using learning to solve organizationally systemic issues.

I am fascinated that the reason learning doesn’t land in an organization often has nothing to do with learning at all. It is the same reason the new marketing strategy doesn’t work, or the new operational processes have workarounds - they’re all sources of friction, distractions from the mission which impact people and their experience and enjoyment of work. Yet nothing to do with the actual work, the Business As Usual (BAU). Sadly, for some, friction in BAU is a constant - the battle to get the finance team to pay your suppliers on time, or getting the receptionist to welcome your visitors, or having facilities provide you with an unbroken chair.  

Living with friction 

We have been living with friction in workplaces for years. In more traditional hierarchical structures, it is almost accepted as a norm – who hasn’t grumbled behind the back of a grumpy boss? I was once told off for laughing too much at work! People have been aware of and researched friction in work. Peter Drucker is famed for this quote: "Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership."

If the quote is true or not doesn’t matter, as it is certainly true that in doing your own thinking about friction stopping the ease of learning and work in your organization, you will be in good company with many others feeling the same pain – as evidenced by those people who got in touch with me personally. We are all living with friction.

From the ease with our base-level needs to boardroom bust-ups, friction is clearly present in work, in workplaces, in communications and in life. At a time when the work feels heavy with global and national issues, societal recovery from a pandemic, an economic downturn, inflation, energy prices, strikes and recruitment issues, absolutely nobody needs any more friction in their lives. Perhaps because of these extraneous circumstances, plus the changes in working practices to more flexible, balanced work with more autonomy, it allows the issues of friction to show up more manifestly and be less acceptable in modern workplaces. Yet, we put up with it. Why do we accept it? Why don’t we do anything about it? 

Of course, some people take their own evasive action to solve the friction they feel at work - they leave their organizations. This extreme action fuels recruitment issues, which can create more friction in the system; it is all connected.

Others may be less able to leave but are struggling mentally. Leaders and managers may never before have had such a challenge of wellbeing and resilience for their teams as in the current post-pandemic world.

Solving the friction 

As L&D professionals providing learning solutions, a friction-free workplace is crucial for ultimate success. This is why I created frameworks in The Learning and Development Handbook which set to ease issues upfront by setting up better foundations for learning to succeed. I am under no illusion that a totally friction-free world may be a daydream, however, my hope is that by surfacing the issues in our organizations through consultative L&D, stakeholder engagement and evidence-based data-led research, we can all learn how better to challenge, surface and deal with the potential for our learning offer to fail. From where the edges rub together, we can learn to ease the relationships and create more seamless, connected organizations in which people find flow and ease.

I believe we all deserve to have this flow and ease in work and life, to be intrinsically motivated for productivity towards our mission and for our employee experience to be effortless. Where there is friction there is energy created by opportunity; it is sand in an oyster which makes a pearl. Daniel Pink’s work in Drive is a great place to start in thinking about how to create and harness motivation. People who are motivated, look for solutions, hence will often ease their own friction. Motivated people are good communicators, good thinkers and engaged in social learning. In the book I talk about social learning being “the glue that sticks us together and the oil that eases our journey through life and work.” Social learning helps ease friction – being interested in others and their lives, listening to hear rather than to interrupt, learning from one another – these are all great ways to help social learning be a tool for ease.

I have offered some ideas here for each friction which makes you feel stuck, frustrated and unable to get things done at work. I don’t have all the answers because whilst friction is commonplace, it is unique to each setting. We all need to understand the friction in our own contexts in order to ensure we can address it ahead of any learning programme implementation, indeed, ahead of any workplace project or collaboration. Where can you start easing friction?