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Leader Newsletter May 2018 Part II

Inertia: the power that holds the universe together

Inertia is the power that holds the universe together. Without it things would quite literally fall apart. It is also what causes us to stick to harmful habits and to resist change.

“If it were possible to flick a switch and turn off inertia, the universe would collapse in an instant to a clump of matter,” writes Peter and Neal Garneau in In the Grip of the Distant Universe: The Science of Inertia.

“…death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” — Steve Jobs

Inertia is the power that holds the universe together. Without it matter wouldn’t be able to hold onto the current arrangement. Inertia is counteracted by the heat and kinetic energy of moving particles. If these weren’t there, everything would cool down to –459,67 degrees Fahrenheit (absolute zero temperature).

The German astrologist, Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) coined the term inertia. He took it from the Latin word for ignorance and inactivity. Inertia is what keeps us in bed on a Sunday morning. We need activation energy to overcome this.

Inertia refers to resistance to change – especially change in movement. It may manifest in resistance in physical objects or in the minds of people. We know a power is required to put something into motion or to change its direction or to let it stop. Without external physical power, a car wouldn’t be able to move. A car requires energy to move.

Inertia is Newton’s first law of motion, a fundamental principle in physics. In 1786 Immanuel Kant explained it as follows: “All change of matter has an external cause. (Every body remains in its state of rest or motion in the same direction and with the same velocity, if not compelled by an external cause to forsake this state.) … This mechanical law can only be called the law of inertia (lex inertiæ)….”

Now that we understand this principle, let’s look at ways in which we can apply this in our lives.

Decision-making and cognitive inertia

All of us experience cognitive inertia (the tendency to cling to existing ideas, behaviour and beliefs even though they don’t serve our needs anymore). Few people are really able to change their opinions in light of information that proves them wrong. What we look for instead, is confirmed proof of our current views. It is easier to continue to think in the way we are accustomed to, than to reflect on the possibility that we might be wrong or that we should change our views.

It takes work to change, just as it takes work to make a car move. If the environment changes, clinging to old ideas can become harmful. It is harmful both to not see the change and to not react on it. Even when others see that we should change, we might not see it ourselves. It is easier to see something when you are not directly involved in it. “Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.” - — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Cognitive inertia is the reason why it is difficult to change habits. The default is always the path of least resistance. It is easier to accept and more difficult to question.

Sometimes inertia can help us. Questioning everything is exhausting. In many cases, though, it is worth the effort to overcome inertia in order to set something in motion or change direction or stop something. The important thing about inertia is that only the initial power needed is difficult, the rest is quite easy. In In A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway writes: “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

As with physics, the momentum needed to start something can carry us a long way. We only need to gather the activation energy and start moving.

Bias towards the status quo: “If in doubt, do nothing.”

We are seldom rational when we make decisions. If we have various options and information, we usually choose the default option, because it is easy. Doing something different from what we are already doing, requires energy that we would rather conserve. We do this to prevent decision-making exhaustion.

Many of us follow routines – and in most cases it works well for us. But the status quo isn’t necessarily the best option. It doesn’t help us when something in the environment has changed.

“The great enemy of any attempt to change men's habits is inertia. Civilization is limited by inertia.” — Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda.

Inertia is generally a problematic power. It lets us cling to old things and prevents us from trying new things. It is also a necessary power. Without it, the universe would collapse. Inertia enables us to maintain patterns of functioning, relationships and getting through the day without questioning everything. Overcoming inertia requires acknowledging its influence and creating that initial momentum.

The power of effective leaders

Research by Mckinsey shows that four behaviours by leaders make the difference between strong and weak leadership. They looked at 20 different behaviours:

  1. Be supportive

  2. Desire change

  3. Set clear goals, rewards and consequences

  4. Communicate effectively and often

  5. Develop others

  6. Promote mutual respect

  7. develop and share a mutual mission

  8. Differentiate between followers

  9. Facilitate cooperation in the group

  10. Praise others

  11. Keep groups organised and focused on the task

  12. Make good decisions

  13. Motivate and bring the best out of others

  14. Offer a critical perspective

  15. Focus on results

  16. Bounce back after failure

  17. Keep calm and confident in times of uncertainty

  18. Be a role model of the organisation’s values

  19. Look for different perspectives

  20. Solve problems appropriately

Successful leaders use all 20 behaviours. But four of these make the biggest difference in efficiency. Four behaviours are responsible for 89% of leaders’ success.

1. Be supportive

  • Show genuine interest

  • Build confidence

  • Help team members to handle challenges

2. Look for different perspectives

  • Monitor trends and patterns

  • Look for ideas that will improve performance

  • Differentiate between important and less important issues

3. Focus on results

  • Follow up

  • Emphasise efficiency

  • Prioritise the work that will make the biggest difference

4. Solve problems efficiently

  • Gather and analyse information

  • Make decisions

  • Handle disputes

You can’t neglect any of the 20 behaviours above. Mckinsey’s research shows that you can serve your organisation the best if you are really good at doing the four things responsible for 89% of efficiency in leaders.

In their research (Decoding Leadership: What really matters) Mckinsey used 189 000 from 81 organisations in their survey.

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