Why Clients Don’t Take Action – ‘career inaction theory’.

Excerpt from Career Development Theory Handbook (Hambly 2023)

Goal setting and action planning is a recognised feature of the career development process. The client may seem motivated to go away from a session and take action and yet, when it comes to reviewing their progress at a later stage, practitioners may find that their client has done very little. Somehow their motivation has dipped and other concerns have taken priority. Then there are clients who seek a careers professional’s support because they have been in a job or situation where they have been unhappy for some time. Having explored their options and come up with an action plan for changing careers or employer, further down the line they are still there – they have stayed in an unsatisfactory job, are suffering burn out, are full of regrets about their career and their performance at work is adversely impacted.

empirical evidence shows that people often do not realize their career desires. For instance, many people who have turnover intentions stay in their organization; and people with entrepreneurial desires often turn out to be wantrepreneurs (i.e., people who talk about starting a business without doing anything to realize it). Although structural barriers sometimes inhibit people from realizing a desired change, there are also indications that people often do not even mobilize into action, or give up prematurely, when trying to realize their career desires. De Vos and Verbbrugen (2020:2)

Why Clients Don’t Take Action (even when they see the benefits)

First of all, there may be external barriers and pressures that impact on someone’s ability to move forward, for example, lack of access to IT or other resources. The theory of inaction focuses on the internal cognitive and psychological reasons why people don’t take action or prematurely give up even when they want to. It builds on two areas in psychology.

  • the psychology of doing nothing
  • career decision and transition making

They identify three phases of career inaction:

  • the awareness phase in which people become aware of their desire to make a change in their career.
  • the inaction phase, during which people fail to act, or act sufficiently over a period of time.
  • the recall phase, in which people look back and realise that the desired change has not been accomplished due to a lack of sufficient action on their part. This phase is characterised by thoughts such as: ‘if only I had…’, ‘I could have been…’, which lead to feelings of regret and self-blame.

According to De Vos and Verbbrugen there are a number of “inertia enhancing mechanisms” or reasons behind inaction, including:

  • difficulties in making decisions
  • anxiety about uncertain outcomes
  • short-term costs winning over long term gains
  • cognitive overload/stress

Job Embeddedness

In addition to these inertia enhancing mechanisms, De Vos and Verbbrugen discuss how “job embeddedness” can strengthen these inertia enhancing mechanisms and make inaction even more likely. Job embeddedness is created by contextual factors such as:

Pay-offs for staying such as good colleagues, pay, pension. These can increase anxiety around potential losses, increase the discomfort of taking action and create more difficulty around decision making.

Norms around staying – social norms around a stable career, longevity with an employer, staying even when unhappy, is likely to reduce the support one has from colleagues and community if deciding to go against these norms. This again can increase anxiety and make the decision more difficult.

De Vos and Verbruggen suggest ways of reducing the impact of inertia enhancing mechanisms.

Inertia enhancing mechanismsWhat may help
Decision making difficulty: choosing between multiple and not easily comparable options.Making the future more concrete by crystallization (gaining information, visioning/ inhabiting, reality testing via talking to people, shadowing etc).
Outcome uncertainty: the present is concrete, preferred scenarios for the future are less tangible and predictable. People may therefore experience fear and anxiety.Reduce the scale of change by breaking it into smaller steps with short-term gains.
Short termism: when decisions are complex, taking action may require effort, discomfort and costs. Short term ease or comfort may take precedence over longer term gains.Reduce the timescale for action: pressure can be motivational, with less scope for procrastination. Inaction is in general less likely when the window of opportunity is shorter
Cognitive overload: the rational part of the human brain has a limited capacity for interpreting and processing complex situations and information. People reduce the stress by avoidance or procrastination.Reframing: accepting the value of the pay offs and other reasons for inaction, thereby avoiding regret and self-blame.

Other tactics not mentioned by De Vos and Verbruggen but which may help, include transformational coaching (using the dialogical method for the parts of self that are in conflict), Motivational interviewing (increasing the discomfort of the status quo), inspirational stories of other people who were in a similar situation and having a mentor or role model who can support through the transition. The latter may also help with job embeddedness.

Copyright Liane Hambly 2023

Excerpt from Career Development Theory Handbook (Hambly 2023) Goal setting and action planning is a recognised feature of the career […]