Towards the end of Breaking Bad Episode 508 Gliding Over All. Walt, at the height of his newfound success, and Jesse are awkwardly reminiscing about their times cooking in their old RV in the middle of the desert.  Jesse brings up the point of how much money they had made by then and wonders why they didn’t buy a newer, more reliable vehicle. Walt replies with one word: ‘Inertia’

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Old habits die hard

As humans, we are largely creatures of habit. Habits help us through our day. When we are doing something that is habitual, we’re not engaged in the task in the same way as when we are doing something new, or different. Consider the daily habit of commuting to work. We’re all familiar with that sense of being on auto-pilot – arriving at your destination without remembering the details along your journey – did you pass the toll booth, or hear the headlines on the news?  We go through the physical motions while our mind is often occupied with thoughts and plans for the day ahead.

Now, compare that to commuting to a new location in a foreign city.  Will you take public transport, or use a taxi? How long will the commute take? Do you need to download an app or get currency? Suddenly getting from A to B is a lot more complicated! Many small, seemingly trivial, decisions can make us break into a sweat!  Habits play an important role in helping us get through the day, and preserving our mental effort for problem solving and decision making.

Our brains love ‘business as usual’ – the status quo enables us to retrieve information, interpret situations, and take decisive action, with minimal effort. However, habits can also create blind spots and become a source of cognitive inertia. The term cognitive inertia refers to the tendency for our beliefs to endure once formed – the sense of being attached to your decision, perspective, or plan. Our brains have an inclination to rely on familiar assumptions and exhibit a reluctance to revise those assumptions, even when the evidence supporting them no longer exists, or when other evidence would question their accuracy.

There are many stories about companies who failed to adapt to changing circumstances with dire consequences. Many once-great brands are now relegated to quotable lessons in corporate failure.  Blockbuster’s much-publicized failure to recognize changing consumer demands for online streaming eventually gave way to Netflix. Polaroid’s failure to anticipate the impact that digital cameras would have on its film business led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2001. Despite this warning, Kodak continued on its path to protect its all-important film business – ultimately to its detriment.


Inertia is a form of anxiety

Studies link inertia to anxiety: people resist change because they are more familiar with the status quo, and change leads to uncertainty and fear. The causes of and reasons for resistance to change in individuals are multiple, however.

Several studies on the brain have shown how the human brain is focused on minimizing danger and maximizing reward – the ‘approach-avoid’ or ‘fight or flight’ response. When we sense a threat our reptilian brain takes over to assess the stimuli and initiate an appropriate response. While all effort and blood flow is being redirected towards the threat response, our ability to engage in rational problem-solving is curtailed. When a lion was hunting you down, you didn’t have time to start analyzing the best route; you simply ran!

Because the brain seeks certainty, it values autonomy—a sense of being in control of circumstances and our destiny. Stress occurs when the brain perceives a threat or potentially threatening circumstances that we are not able to control. Recent events have destabilized our sense of normality sending us into a whirlwind of ‘what ifs’ while we digest the never ending predictions of what our new normal might be. This loss of control, and increase in uncertainty, can stop us in our tracks – right at the very time we need our problem-solving brain to kick into swift action.

The role of survival anxiety

Edgar Schein popularized the concept of survival anxiety in his study of organizational learning. Drawing from his vast and unusual research into the US army’s efforts to repatriate prisoner’s of war in Korea, Schein concludes that while anxiety inhibits learning, it is also necessary for learning to happen at all! He associates two sources of anxiety with learning and growth: ‘learning anxiety’ and ‘survival anxiety’. Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.  All change triggers learning anxiety – the higher the learning anxiety, the stronger the resistance and defensiveness.

Given the intensity of our fears, none of us would try something new unless we experienced the second form of anxiety: survival anxiety – the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change. Survival anxiety grows from the fear of becoming obsolete. When a firm, or a leader, experiences enough survival anxiety – they begin to ‘unlearn’ and open up to new ideas

The evidence is mounting that real change does not begin until the organization experiences some real threat of pain that in some way dashes its expectations or hopes… and opens the possibility of learning.

– Edgar Schein


When faced with change – holding on to old beliefs can be fatal

  • Watch out for cognitive inertia. Be open to reassessing your underlying beliefs about the future. You may need to adjust course as the new normal unfolds.

Stress makes you stupid

  • Recognize that you may not have all the answers right now and may not be thinking rationally.  Balance short term actions with longer term strategic thinking. Consult trusted peers and mentors before you settle on an immediate response to the economic uncertainty.

Channel your survival anxiety

  • Embrace the uncertainty and channel your survival anxiety to fuel your unlearning.  Question the assumptions in your business model, prepare multiple scenarios and have Plan B, C and D to hand as we face into a period of unprecedented ambiguity.



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