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Don’t Forget about the Friction

In HR, we’ve seen over and over again how investing in people can pay off. We enhance employee engagement through incentives, recognition, benefits, and meaningful work. We retain talent by offering training and tuition reimbursement, childcare and flexible work arrangements. We nurture mindfulness, resilience, and health through meeting meditations, wellness workshops, and phone apps. We add value and contribute to the success of our enterprise. And most people see that now!

Photo Credit: CU Management

You could call these approaches “adding fuel”. In their best-selling book, The Human Element, Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal describe why this orientation toward adding fuel is so popular. From an HR perspective, fuel is all the things we add at work to enrich employment and make work more motivating, engaging, satisfying, and meaningful. We add fuel because it works and because it’s fun!

However, the majority of their book explains the importance of also dealing with “friction” because just adding fuel doesn’t solve all of our organizational problems. For HR, the friction is the stuff at work that is demotivating, disengaging, dissatisfying, and lacking in meaning or purpose. Much friction at work is overlooked or unconsciously accepted as the price of doing business. Friction can be the oppressive process that makes a new and exciting idea much too hard to implement. The unnecessary obstacle that puts a worthy and attainable goal just beyond reach. The stifling inaction by a gatekeeper that stops a contribution from hitting its mark. The unbearable weight of a double workload when understaffed. Or the unkind words or unthoughtful actions of a colleague that can have a chilling effect on enthusiasm. Employees can and do burnout and disengage in organizations that invest in every possible fuel. That’s because it is the abundance of friction that leads to disengagement and burnout much more often than it is the lack of fuel. We must deal with the friction.


"From an HR perspective, fuel is all the things we add at work to enrich employment and make work more motivating, engaging, satisfying, and meaningful. We add fuel because it works and because it’s fun!"


Why is friction so bad? Scientists in many different fields have noticed the “bad is stronger than good” effect. Basically, humans (and pretty much everyone else on the planet) are quite attuned to friction. We notice the bad more readily than the good and we dwell on negative much longer than positive experiences. We form negative impressions more easily than positive ones and those bad impressions are “stickier” – they are more deeply encoded in our minds and harder to overcome – than those formed when encountering something or someone neutral or mildly pleasant. Bad also compounds more readily than good. Humans don’t just forgive and forget. Our experiences are cumulative over time such that a stubbed toe, an unusually annoying commute, and a few microaggressions can set the tone for the rest of the day or even the week. That is true even if in the same morning your favorite latte flavor is back on the menu and your boss praises your great idea at the staff meeting. Basically, when both bad and good are present, the bad will overshadow the good.

Photo Credit: Silicon Republic

It has been a completely nutty few years. What people want or don’t want in their employment is a complicated issue. However, when my friend left a job she loved a few months ago, it really made question what went wrong. She said that all the pay and perks she’d always enjoyed weren’t worth putting up with the new employee monitoring system that the company had started when they adopted work from home. It was just one friction too many. One friction, but far more potent than the abundant but weaker fuels. Bad is stronger than good means that we must deal with the frictions at work if we really hope to ignite a spark by adding fuels.


Listen to an interview with The Human Element author, Loren Nordgren, on the Hidden Brain Podcast!

Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!


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