Work Avoidance Mechanisms

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

workavoidanceConcept description

Work avoidance mechanisms, as described by Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School, are mechanisms employed by an individual or a group to avoid the adaptive work required to survive and thrive in a changing world.

“Finally, people fail to adapt because of the distress provoked by the problem and the changes it demands. They resist the pain, anxiety, or conflict that accompanies a sustained interaction with the situation. Holding onto past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions, or finding a distracting issue may restore stability and feel less stressful than facing and taking responsibility for a complex challenge. These patterns of response to disequilibrium are called work avoidance mechanisms in this study, and they are similar to the defensive routines that operate in individuals, small groups, and organizations.

Diagnostically, an organization or community may experience any one of these difficulties in adapting. But when one takes action, the final cause of adaptive failure-the tendency to avoid distress holds . the key to setting strategy. It frequently provides the ultimate impediment to adaptive change because the learning associated with identifying blind spots and options that others cannot see, or strengthening a community’s problem-solving capacity, will generate conflict and distress. Thus, a key question for leadership becomes: How can one counteract the expected work avoidances and help people learn despite resistance?” Heifetz, 1994, page 37-38.


RA Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994). For an open access source, with details on further references, see Adaptive Work by Ron Heifetz in the Journal of the Kansas Leadership Center, Spring 2010 at, accessed 5 January 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Leadership and Communication (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 2 May 2019.

Image: From RBL-APPS at, accessed 5 January 2016.