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Fear as Business Friction

In the vast marketplace of ideas, you can easily find several concepts or key words that have staying power and typically attract attention and investment. For example:

  • Trust
  • Accountability
  • Vision
  • Goal
  • Strategy
  • Efficiency
  • Innovation

Entire industries are built around these kinds of words. Consultants evaluate companies to determine whether they have these characteristics. If they determine the companies do not have these attributes, they generate significant income by creating plans to inculcate the business with the “missing” ideals.

At the core of these concepts is to enable a business to achieve its full potential. Improvements may take the form of operational changes or cultural shifts. The focus may be on the individual, a sector, a business unit, or the entire company.

The Goal: Eliminate Business Friction

The goal of improving trust, accountability, efficiency, and so forth is to reduce business friction — anything that blocks progress, impairs productivity, or slows the pace of innovation and business itself. In physics, friction is the resistance that one object or surface encounters when rubbing against or moving over another object or surface. In a car, friction reduces fuel efficiency. Energy needed to move the vehicle is partially used to overcome friction and is lost in the form of heat. Friction and the resulting heat cause wear and tear on the car that eventually results in the need for repairs.

In a business, friction results in a loss of focus, creativity, confidence, and direction, and negatively impacts productivity. Moreover, organizational friction inhibits innovation, which often results in decreased sales. All of these make a business less efficient and therefore less productive. Secondary effects of business friction may include negative cultural changes, personal and business stagnation, and a lack of accountability.

Fear: An Overlooked Source of Friction

A significant, but rarely discussed, source of business friction is fear. I am not talking about a fear of heights or a fear of small rodents. I am referring to fear that negatively impacts action, interaction, and transaction. In business, fear discourages people from taking initiative, challenging the status quo, forming partnerships, exploring opportunities, and making deals. Fear can create a lackadaisical workforce with no personal investment in the business or vision. This is a recipe for disaster.

Fear creates friction. How can it not? If employees are afraid to point out problems or afraid of having their ideas shot down, opportunities are lost. If a customer service representative is afraid to negotiate with customers, how effective will that person be in improving customer satisfaction? If leadership is paranoid, how effective will it be in pursuing partnerships and making deals?

Example: Fear as Business Friction

Fear can often impact working relationships. One example: co-workers did not understand the different roles they played and each person’s value to their company’s client and senior manager. One person was getting all the face time with a client, while the other — an analyst — was conducting complex analysis behind the scenes. The analyst felt unappreciated and isolated and feared he would ultimately be let go or demoted. This led him to create false crises that only he could solve and develop highly complicated models that only he understood. These aberrant behaviors created significant stress with the client and with coworkers, because nobody understood what was going on. The manager and coworker began to doubt the analyst’s competence, and the client began to wonder whether the company really understood the deal and if they would be able to get it closed.

The manager finally sat down with the analyst and asked what was happening and whether something was wrong. He listened when the analyst revealed that he felt isolated and worried he would be fired. The manager then explained that the separation was not because the work he was doing was any less important, but because the client did not want too many people on client interaction and, more importantly, because the manager wanted to have one person looking objectively at facts and issues without client input so that the whole team would have a voice that was clear and not influenced, even unintentionally, by what the client was wanting. So, in reality, the analyst was highly valued and served as an important internal control.

Once the company explained this dynamic to all the workers, the entire team started to work more collaboratively. Each team member took the time to understand the reason for their assignment, influenced of course by the manager explaining internal and external reasons for assignments and workflow.

As you analyze and seek to improve your organization, consider the impact fear may be having on the ability of everyone in your organization to act, interact, and transact. If you notice any examples in your organization, please share them by posting a comment. Better yet, share an example of fear that has been a source of friction in your organization and how your organization addressed it.

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

About The Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit

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