The Impact of Inertia

I’m about to introduce physics into a blog about leadership and people development.  Why? Because organizations are in a constant state of motion with inertia cropping up all around us … and even within us.

Sir Isaac Newton, in his First Law of Motion, explained “inertia” this way:images[5]

An object will continue moving at its current velocity until some force causes its speed or direction to change.

Wikipedia adds:

Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its speed and direction. It is the tendency to keep moving in a straight line at constant velocity.

No matter your level of leadership, there likely have been times when Newton’s definition fit you like a glove.

  • Resistance to change:   “Ugh! Another new performance management system?”
  • Desire to keep everything as it is: “Why do we have to move offices? This is going to screw up my morning routine!”
  • Shifting only when some external force demands it: “We had a horrible fourth quarter and missed our annual targets. We’ve got to do something fast to fix this!”

There are many reasons why we white-knuckle the status quo or need an external catalyst before changing our approach. Here’s the main one: We like what’s comfortable and familiar. Constancy and continuity provide that.

We know how to operate in our _______________ (insert your context here … job, team, company, relationship, system). Even if we aren’t satisfied or thrilled with where we are or what’s happening, we know what to expect and what’s expected of us.

law of motion 639x852Unfortunately, comfort and familiarity are the enemy of innovation and transformation. They breed complacency and a false sense of security. We may feel threatened by anything that moves us off our cozy dime.

Comfort and familiarity are also bedfellows to a certain type of victimhood that shows up in business settings as blame, lack of accountability, avoidance and resistance. I’m willing to bet those words are not part of your corporate values or leadership behaviors!

The good news is that there are effective strategies to combat such inertia. Here are a few that have been useful to several of my clients lately:

  • Create a Compelling Vision & Strategy – Whether you’re the CEO, your plant’s GM, or the manager of a function, engaging your direct reports in defining your (and their) future is fundamental to inspiring change. It increases clarity, ownership and excitement. The organization will feel that energy and be more inclined to hop on board.
  • Create Commitment – Know your people and their career aspirations. Make certain they see how their personal career goals are linked to achieving the organization’s Vision and Strategy.
  • Establish Clear Milestones, then Monitor and Publish Results – The most beautifully crafted vision and strategy will prove useless if progress isn’t tracked and communicated … frequently, consistently and transparently. An informed workforce is essential to executing plans and achieving results, so educate your employees on how to read and interpret key results.
  • Recognize Challenges and Setbacks – Wouldn’t it be grand if every initiative went off without a hitch?! Be realistic and acknowledge that striving for goals you’ve never even set before will present new challenges. Encourage employees to brainstorm their own creative solutions to new problems. Recognize effort and discuss any lessons learned from mistakes. Don’t personalize failure – your own or anyone else’s.
  • Deal with Toxicity Fairly & Swiftly – There will always be the gripers, the naysayers and the disengaged sideliners. Set clear expectations in your organization for what kind of attitude is required and address those who don’t demonstrate it. Many times, resistance is grounded in fear. What are they afraid of? Listen to their concerns, explain how their role fits into the big picture, and reinforce the opportunities that lie ahead in the future you’re building together. Attitude is a choice. If they don’t shift in the right direction following real coaching and support, then it may be time to begin the performance management process to move them out.

Lastly, there’s no such thing as mastery or perfection, so know that your own inertia will strike from time to time. Commit to managing it. Whether you tap a trusted network of sounding boards, leverage a coach, or simply spend time reflecting, be honest with yourself about the source of your own inertia and set a plan for meaningful action.

How you personally lead change is one of the most powerful levers for growth and success your organization has. And YOU are entirely within your own control!

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