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May 05, 2003
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Public Enemy Number Two

Isaac Newton’s contributions to science helped pave the way for the technology we use today, even if he didn’t realize the shape of things to come. Little did Sir Isaac know that his most famous contribution to science, in the form of the laws of motion, also qualified him to become an elected or appointed official in local government.

He was reputedly conked on the head by a falling apple, helping him achieve the "flash of insight," which is one way to define a discovery. However, the apple could just as easily have been the gavel convening a Commission or Board of Supervisors’ meeting. It could also have been the result of the impact of a flying paperclip in the office of an appointed director, supervisor or manager. In any event, we have a huge amount to learn about how organizations and individuals behave from a quick review of Newtonian Motion Theory as it applies to public administration.

To set the stage, regular readers of the HR Doctor are likely aware that the HR Doctor has identified "Public Enemy Number One" when it comes to harm done to local government, its employees and family members, and the citizens we serve. In fact, this number-one problem "disease" has much broader nationwide or worldwide implications in explaining why achieving our goals and making our personal and professional dreams come true can be impeded, delayed, or totally defeated. That number-one enemy is arrogant pride. The Greeks would say hubris. You are cordially and, of course, humbly invited to read that article at

Vying strongly for second place in any diagnosis of organizational or personal failure is the central property defined by Newton 350 years ago. The first Law of Motion defines the property called inertia. Inertia refers to the tendency of a body in motion to remain in that constant state of motion unless acted on by an outside force. The body involved could be an individual person, a work unit, a department and entire local government or a larger community.

Inertia is synonymous with resistance to change, with unwillingness to try something new, and with an inability to recognize the symptoms of problems, which require timely intervention and action. In other words, inertia in public service can refer to an individual’s or an agency’s unwillingness or inability to see the need to accomplish something and to get on with the job.

How many opportunities go by in our personal lives and our work lives where, if we had only acted, if we had only taken one more step or seen the problem coming, the outcome could have been changed for the better? If only they had worn their seat belt or motorcycle helmet before the accident. If only the invitation to go back to school to get the bachelor’s degree had been seized a few years ago ... If only! If only! If only!

The difference between the "if only" and the successful local government leaders who create a vision and rally others to active support is that these leaders recognize and have learned to overcome the effects of inertia. They have developed the "counter inertia" remedy.

That remedy is to substitute a compelling sense of urgency for inertia to get on with the business of making things better. This treatment applies equally to each of us individually, to our families, our workplaces, and in the community.

Inertia takes over all too often. When individuals lack or appear to lack a compelling sense of the need or opportunity to move forward without being asked, a need to show initiative without being micro-managed and to value bringing new ideas forward, they have fallen prey to the inertia syndrome. Conversely, the behavioral markers of a person whose career and whose personal life will be successful and happy include a sense of the urgency of getting on with decisions and positive change, even if there are reasonable risks involved.

What is the treatment for acute exposure to the inertia syndrome in public administration? Learning to be conscious of the effects of the syndrome and how to overcome its symptoms comes first.

The actual treatment is rather simple! Any of us can overcome some of inertia’s effects by committing to take specific action on a specific project in a measurable way. Make a commitment to accomplish a task. Make it a simple one at first and use the technique of the diplomatic corps — employ small confidence-building measures. Success with a small step can be built upon to set another measurable goal. Succeed in it and celebrate! The HR Doctor recommends a chocolate treat as an appropriate reward. Keep to the method of "one small step" and watch big results emerge. Walt Disney called it "stick-to-it-ivity."

Start small. Finish that memo that’s been on your desk. Complete the overdue performance evaluation. Return that call from last week! Soon you will be routinely acting more and procrastinating less! The treatment to overcome inertia is simple. It is action! Now, not later. Today, not next week.

For a leader in government and the community, there is an additional element. The leader must convey to others the need to get on with doing their part toward achieving a group, department, agency or community goal. The leader has to be a cheerleader in holding others accountable for their part in the larger success. That very definitely includes recognizing and appreciating the work of others in contributing to overall success.

Imagine letting inertia seep into your personal life and your family life. Waiting to spend some time with the little child in your life can cost you dearly. Soon you will procrastinate yourself into realizing that the little child is no longer little, perhaps not living at home any more! Immediately after reading this article ... go do something great!

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor

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