Psychological inertia is common in organizational change or manifested primarily in the lack of change. It is the tendency to maintain the status quo unless forced by a psychological motive to intervene.
The phenomenon is similar to the status-quo bias, but psychological inertia is about inhibiting any possible action, whereas status-quo bias is about avoiding any change that is perceived as a loss. Psychological inertia is mainly caused by fear, such as fear of telling the truth.
In the powerful article ‘Who killed Nokia? Nokia did.’ by Insead Professor Quy Huy, the author says that it was not smugness, blindness to the world around them, or self-importance about Nokia’s technical superiority that caused the once strong Finnish brand to falter, but rather fear among middle management and employees of telling the truth. The board consisted of extremely ambitious people who believed that making threats and putting extreme pressure on performance were necessary to sustain their success. The focus was so strong on this that everything else had to give way. Out of fear of the management, the middle managers, who did see what was going on, either kept quiet or presented things in a better light, so that the company reacted too late to the arrival of the iPhone, with all the familiar consequences. In this case, there was a clear case of organizational perfectionism, where making mistakes was avoided as much as possible.
‘First time right’ is the slogan. As a result, an enormous learning potential is lost. Organizations that dare to make mistakes and learn from them are more innovative. Perfection is the antithesis of innovation and change. An extreme command and control culture, based on fear and uncertainty, causes people to fear taking initiative. A few individuals at the top make all the decisions, but it is obvious that they simply cannot have all the knowledge. In times of great change, it is dangerous to manage in this way. Not to mention the impact on the employees, who accept this type of management less and less.
“Perfection is the antithesis of innovation and change”
Complexity and information overload
Another cause of psychological inertia in organizational change is, in my opinion, being overwhelmed by the many possibilities, the many trends and developments, and not knowing where to start. The higher the complexity and uncertainty, the more procrastination threatens to occur. We can’t see the forest for the trees and choose to do nothing. Especially when things are going relatively well or there is no reason to panic, why would we change? Rationally, we know we should prepare for the future, but it’s not burning anywhere, so we put it off for a while…
When psychological inertia occurs, there are actually three mental principles at work:
- the negativity bias: things of a more negative nature (thoughts, emotions or social interactions) have a greater effect on a person’s psychological state than things of a neutral or positive nature. As a result, we tend to focus on things that could go wrong, which can lead to loss aversion and inertia.
- loss aversion: the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of winning. When there is a lot of ambiguity, complexity, or fear of making mistakes, the tendency is more likely to be to do nothing, in order to minimize the chance of losing.
- the conformity bias: people are more likely to conform to an idea that has already been accepted than to go against the group and advocate for a new idea. In most situations, we start to determine our behavior by the actions of others rather than making our own independent judgments. This is due to peer pressure or the desire to belong somewhere. This can cause an organization to doze off.
How can you deal with this phenomenon?
People have a tendency toward psychological inertia unless they are truly motivated to make a different choice. So finding and triggering the desire for change is the message and the challenge.
Focus on growth
Fortunately, there is also another deep-seated human drive and that is growth. People want to achieve something. We want to make progress. We also want to contribute. So we can consciously shift the focus from things that might go wrong to what people do want to achieve. In the change processes at Soulcenter for example (a start-up I work at in elder care), we work with the motivation that is already present in people to help others and we help them to do what they do even better or in a slightly different way, so that they can make progress as a residential care center. On the one hand, we use inspiring examples and tried and tested methods to open up a new world for them and, on the other hand, we make them think about how they themselves can take steps in that direction.
Focus on the positive
Provide more information about the benefits of the change. Not just by talking about it, but especially by letting people experience it. Allow people to fully participate in positive experiences around the change and engage in dialogue about it together. At Soulcenter, we don’t talk too much about the change process itself, but rather get started quickly with something manageable and let staff quickly feel what it’s like to provide relationship-based care and make adjustments based on the questions that arise.
One way to experience a future change is to dream together. Spark the desire by shaping the future together and really wallowing in it. This can be done through exercises in future thinking and visioning. Determine the direction before the destination is completely clear. Make this complexity and uncertainty negotiable as well, which helps to understand that it is a process that you must go through together and thus get moving.
Create psychological safety
Throughout the change, create a safe environment for your people. Some time ago I wrote a separate article on this: ‘Innovate as a team? Work on psychological safety.’ with tips on how to do this as a manager, such as giving space instead of being controlling, showing cognitive self-confidence, working with a common vision, giving constructive feedback, showing respect and being open and approachable. The role of the environment and leaders is crucial in this.
Protect your misfits
Every team needs at least one maverick, someone who thinks differently, who sees opportunities before others see them, who keeps going after the initial resistance, who cares about what others think and especially about the status quo. These people, provided they are given space, are protected and do not fade away or go away, can ensure that as a team or organization you do not doze off or stand still. You can also make targeted use of external people for this purpose.
Experiment with change in one part of your organization before fully unleashing it on everyone. This allows you to learn and make change manageable. It is less threatening because it concerns a solution that is still being tested and can be adjusted. And you save time, because an experiment is quicker to set up than a company-wide change. You learn faster and can make adjustments faster. As a result, action is taken faster. In our workshops at Soulcenter we work on the one hand with what is already there and ask to experiment with other solutions and activities. After a set period, we evaluate what worked and what didn’t and make adjustments.
Make it simpler
Take the time to look for the essence of the change. What is it that you want to achieve? What specific behavior or change do you want to see? And what are the essential steps to achieve it. A difficult exercise at the start, but crucial to successful change. Ideally, you have a team of change designers in place to do this exercise with you, drawing on their knowledge of human drives and psychology.
Organizational change starts with new behaviors and decisions by individuals. The motivation to do so does not just come naturally. A stimulating environment and collaboration is needed for this. If employees perceive the possible consequences of a change as threatening, they will not be open to it and hope that it will pass. If, on the other hand, they see the change as something exciting, manageable and doable, they will be more open to it. If, in addition, they have a say and can help think about the direction and concrete actions, they will be psychologically receptive and the chances of success of the change process will increase.