Resistance and Momentum

I've been thinking recently about workplace dynamics in terms of concepts from classical mechanics such as resistance (and related terms like friction or drag) and momentum (related to inertia).

You've probably had the experience of having to do something at work that you don't enjoy, don't see the point of, and endlessly procrastinate. And maybe you're lucky enough to have experienced the opposite: something that's so exciting, interesting, and impactful that you struggle to pause it at the end of the day. Both of these situations are examples of (lack of) resistance.

Here are a few types of resistance, or reasons someone may struggle to complete their work:

  1. Laziness. Some people are just unmotivated. (Hopefully this doesn't apply to your team, especially if you've got ideal team players.) The antidote is discipline (also called fortitude or perseverance), which is one of the classical virtues, but it takes time to develop.
  2. Knowledge gap. Some people may not have the knowledge needed to do a task, and may not be comfortable or know how to ask for help.
  3. Understanding gap. Occasionally someone may be motivated to work on a complex problem, but stuck because they don't fully understand it. I'm separating this from the point above because, rather than a lack of facts or tools, this is more of a lack of overall understanding of a complex system. Knowledge gaps happen when details are missing; understanding gaps happen when the overall picture is blurry.
  4. Disengagement. Studies show that much of the U.S. workforce is disengaged, meaning that many people feel like they're making a difference; they don't see the point of their work. This is either because they don't understand how their work supports the mission and vision of the company, or they don't believe in the mission.

Disciplined and motivated employees can (and do) put their heads down and work through various kinds of resistance, but doing so saps their energy and erodes momentum.  In the absence of resistance, a team will gain momentum and consistently get things done. So how can team leaders reduce resistance?

Leaders' responsibilities include:

  • recognizing projects, processes, and tasks that suffer resistance
  • teaching or otherwise helping their teams to learn what they need to know in order to work effectively
  • encouraging systems thinking by regularly explaining and reviewing how systems and processes work together, documenting complex systems (especially using system diagrams), and involving their teams in problem-solving exercises
  • communicating to their teams how a project/task supports the team's or company's mission and vision (i.e., the underlying "why" the project/task is important)
  • protecting their teams from projects/tasks that do not support the team's mission, as these are ripe for resistance (and rightfully so)

Thus far I've been talking about work as in "projects/tasks done for an employer in exchange for a salary." But resistance can impede other types of work, like volunteer projects or personal responsibilities.

Let's look at an example: Bill knows he needs to clean the gutters, but he don't feel like it and procrastinates. Bill is dealing with resistance. How can he fix it?

First, we need to understand the cause of Bill's resistance.

  1. Would he just rather be watching football? (Laziness)
  2. Has he never cleaned the gutters before and doesn't have the tools or experience to do it? (Knowledge gap)
  3. Does he not understand that clean gutters help extend the life of the roof, and clogged gutters can lead to ice dams and improper drainage which may cause roof leaks? (Understanding gap)
  4. Does he just not believe cleaning the gutters is important to his life goals? (Disengagement)

Once Bill identifies what's causing his resistance, he can try to alleviate it.

  1. If Bill is lazy, he needs to develop virtue. There are ways to do that, but that's a different blog post.
  2. If Bill doesn't know how to clean the gutters, he can learn. Ask a neighbor or friend, read a book, learn on YouTube, buy a ladder. Whatever it takes.
  3. If Bill doesn't get the connection between clean gutters and roof integrity, he should read a book and gain understanding about the complex system that is a home.
  4. If Bill doesn't think cleaning the gutters is important, he needs to reflect and ask himself the five whys. That could go something like this:

I don't think cleaning the gutters is important.
Why?

It doesn't matter to me whether they overflow or not.
Why?

I don't really like this house.
Why?

I don't like living in this neighborhood.
Why?

It's too far from work, I hate my long commute.
Why?

My commute wastes valuable time I'd rather spend with my family.

And there you have it: now Bill has arrived at the underlying reason for his resistance about the gutters, and he can actually do something about it (talk to his boss about working remote, move closer to work, look for a different job, etc.).


Resistance can crop up in all corners of our lives, but reflecting on it and identifying the underlying cause can help us defeat it and keep making progress.

Special thanks to my boss Matt, whose recent efforts on
turnaround time got me thinking in this direction.

This article was updated on January 28, 2021