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Jacky Sherman

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The Science Of Friction

How it applies to your business relationships ...


Posted by Jacky Sherman on 12/02/2020 @ 8:00AM

Like many regular bloggers, some weeks I just stare at the paper and can’t think of what to write. I have various ways of unblocking my head and one is to turn to the TED talks and browse a while ...

Reducing friction can speed things up, but be careful not to slide out of control!

Reducing friction can speed things up, but be careful not to slide out of control!

photo by sergei boldt on unsplash

This week, I came across Jennifer Vail’s talk on The Science of Friction which you can see by clicking here. I thought this will be a good start with a woman talking about engineering. Actually her talk was pretty lightweight.

I kept waiting for the new perspective or punchline and sadly, it didn’t come. Never mind, my brain was hard at work both flashing up a memory and then translating this into some thoughts on friction in relationships and my own punchline.

"Firstly, it took me back to a particularly antagonistic
professor I used to work with!"

At one meeting we had, he dragged me into his lab and had me looking into his electron microscope whilst he explained that what I was seeing was his research into the stickiness of cell membranes. Now, when I’m feeling charitable I believe he thought I was as excited by this subject as he was. It was interesting, but certainly wasn’t the agenda I had for meeting with him.

When I’m not feeling charitable, I think he was talking to me in that particular code that senior academics use with administrators and making oblique references to the friction between his department and mine.

At the time, I decided that to lubricate our relationship, the best way was to be as excited as he was about whatever it was he was showing me down the microscope and then later find out what the real problem was. The stickiness of cells was the highlight of the encounter.

Returning to Jennifer Vails' Ted talk, she was advocating for a new specialism in science called Tribology, the study of Friction, Wear and Lubrication. I’m going to use these terms and how they relate to each other as metaphors for what happens in relationships.

Friction is the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another. The more friction, the slower you go as the energy is used to overcome the resistance. Equally, too little friction and you’re sliding around all over the place still getting nowhere.

And so it is with relationships ... friction is the conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions. Too much disagreement and all the energy goes into trying to score over the other person and things can get very heated.

Equally, too little disagreement - where everyone is best buddies and never challenge anything for fear of disrupting the friendship - can mean that if you need to change course, you all slip and slide around with no means of controlling where you end up.

"The result of friction is wear and tear!"

Over time, the forces of the two surfaces cause the breakdown of one or both surfaces. I think motor racing is a great example. The tyres cope with the heavy friction load until suddenly they 'go off' and the car goes from heavy friction to no friction.

So, a relationship may cope with tensions and disagreements for a while, but if there’s no release then suddenly one chance remark can send the whole show sliding out of control into the bushes or worse.

So, the art of managing your relationships comes down to applying the right amount of lubricant to keep the friction at the right level!

A useful Rule of Thumb is that friction slows things down and results in wear. Lack of friction frees things up, but reduces control. So, become your own tribologist and analyse what is happening in your business relationships.

  • Do you need to add some more stickiness or more lubricant?

  • Are things getting bogged down? Somehow things never move on?

  • Is your agenda the same as last month? How about last year?

  • Is it the issue at hand or the people involved?

  • Who’s adding the grit?

  • Alternatively, do you feel out of control.? Do things just happen or are you directing them?

  • Who’s pouring in the lubricant?

  • Who can help you by adding more grit or more lubricant?

Is it time to change the dynamics within the relationship? A good way to achieve this is to add more people into the decision-making process, to ask the right questions and to see the issue through fresh eyes. Choose wisely those people who can add a note of reality and give you more purchase on your project or an element of riskiness to get you out of the mire.

Until next time ...



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If anything I've written in this blog post resonates with you and you'd like to discover more, it may be a great idea to give me a call on 07970 638857. Let's have an initial chat over a coffee and see how I can help you.

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