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Dysfunctional Momentum and Leading in Uncertainty


Juliette Phillipson - 2024

Organisational systems consist of individuals collectively working towards a goal. Frequently, these individuals struggle to redirect their actions due to resistance to change or adherence to past practices, which generates momentum. This momentum is underpinned by various psychological and contextual factors. 'Dysfunctional momentum' describes a scenario in which an organisation or team continues on a problematic path or maintains ineffective behaviours despite clear indications that a change is needed. This is often driven by a reluctance to disrupt the status quo, fear of the unknown, or the sunk cost fallacy (continuing an endeavour due to significant prior investment, irrespective of its current feasibility).

Overcoming this momentum goes beyond structural or procedural changes because it involves social processes. Michelle A. Barton's case studies on firefighters in field operations provide examples of dysfunctional momentum and strategies to counteract it (Barton  & Sutcliffe, 2009).

A key finding of Barton's study was the importance of reassessing working assumptions to prevent errors and stop individual events from accumulating unnoticed. This requires regular pauses for the re-evaluation of ongoing management. Additionally, the study highlights that merely noticing small cues (things going wrong) is inadequate to disrupt ongoing action patterns and stimulate re-evaluation. Two effective social processes for re-evaluation were highlighted:

1. Voicing Concerns: Beyond observation, voicing concerns requires that individals articulate these observations. This means clearly and effectively communicating the specific concerns, including their nature, potential implications, and urgency. An essential factor to facilitate this is the presence of psychological safety in the organisational culture.

2. Seeking Alternative Perspectives: Proactively seeking different perspectives can interrupt one's thought processes and actions, thus creating space to reassess the situation and contemplate alternative actions. 'Situated humility' was identified as a crucial enabler for this, where a leader acknowledges their limitations in comprehensively understanding the situation, regardless of their skill level.

To address dysfunctional momentum, strong leadership is required, promoting open dialogue, critical thinking, and flexibility. Leaders must recognise the need for change and take decisive action to alter the current trajectory. Barton noted that these processes can be hampered by a leader possessing excessive self-confidence. Other factors inhibiting dysfunctional momentum include institutional pressure and individual interests.

Dysfunctional momentum is especially detrimental in uncertain environments where adaptability and responsiveness are essential. Being caught up in this momentum obstructs effective leadership responses. Leading in uncertainty involves recognising unproductive paths and taking decisive actions to change these directions. This requires skills and attributes different from those necessary in stable circumstances. These include adaptability, resilience, strong communication skills, and the capacity to tolerate ambiguity. Such leaders often adopt a more collaborative approach, encouraging input and innovation from team members. They focus on building a robust organisational culture that can adapt to changes.

In a related study, Barton explored practices contributing to effective performance under uncertainty in wildland firefighting (Barton et al., 2015). The key practices identified were 'anomalising' and 'proactive leader sensemaking'. Anomalising involves actively identifying and responding to discrepancies or anomalies in the environment, whilst proactive leader sensemaking refers to leaders continually striving to understand and interpret potential problems or different perspectives.

In summary, Barton’s study revealed that effective performance in uncertain contexts relied on being very observant, continuously interpreting the situation, good communication and decision-making in the team, and the ability to adapt quickly to new challenges. This approach can be useful in many other areas, such as healthcare, where people have to make quick, critical decisions in unpredictable environments.


Barton, M. A.,  & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2009). Overcoming dysfunctional momentum:  Organizational safety as a social achievement. Human Relations, 62(9),  1327–1356.

Barton, M. A.,  Sutcliffe, K. M., Vogus, T. J., & DeWitt, T. (2015). Performing Under  Uncertainty: Contextualized Engagement in Wildland Firefighting. Journal of  Contingencies and Crisis Management, 23(2), 74–83.

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