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Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion: Laws of Physics Are Also Laws of Human Behavior

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Those of us who love physics fondly remember Newton’s Laws of Motion. I know that is a small group. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion is commonly stated as “For every action there is an equal an opposing reaction.” More formally stated, it says that “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.”1 A simple example you can try at home to prove this theory. Stand up. Put your hand against the wall. Now push. HARD! Why didn’t the wall fall over? Because it is pushing back at you. If it didn’t, it would fall over.

What does this have to do with human behavior? Newton was a very smart guy. His laws of physics (including the 1st and 2nd laws, which we will discuss in another article) apply equally to human interaction as they do to physics. We see this in daily life. A child hits a sibling; the sibling hits back. Or screams. Or both. We see it in politics. In business.

In the corporate world, the effect is not always immediate or obvious, but it is definitely there. Years ago, companies had unwritten agreements with employers: in exchange for loyal service, employees got lifetime employment, a pension, and retirement benefits. Over time, companies tore up the agreements. They stopped giving out pensions. Later, they threw the pensions into bankruptcy, eliminating a lifeline for many employees, after the lifetime of employment had already been paid. Retiree benefits also went away. And employees eventually came to be treated as resources to be added or removed as the company saw fit. As a result, potential employees now see companies in the same way – a transaction. We see less of this in some technology companies like Apple and Google, which still offer generous perks.

Today, it is almost funny to hear stories from recruiters of new hires who simply never show up for work. But a quick look at Newton’s 3rd Law gives clear evidence why this is happening:

  • Action: Prospective employee goes through an interview process, follows up with emails and calls and pursues a company he/she is interested in working for.

  • Reaction: Silence (the company’s recruiters are so busy they can’t possibly respond to every candidate).

  • Action: Company offers an employee a job.

  • Reaction: Silence (the employee got a different job and did not feel the need to inform the other employer. Gee, I wonder where they learned that behavior?).

  • Action: Employee is promoted for a job well done.

  • Reaction: Another employee is upset that he/she didn’t get promoted and eventually quits (delayed reaction).

In each case, there is an action and a reaction. While in the first two examples, one can argue that the reaction is not appropriate in a professional world, the behaviors are definitely learned from others. Another way to look at this is in a macro context:

  • Action: Our company routinely fails to reply in an appropriate and timely manner to most applicants and candidates.

  • Reaction: Candidates we want to hire will eventually respond to us in the same manner.

Sometimes it is a matter of thinking outside the traditional box. For example, Situation 3 above once happened to me. I once a promoted a director to VP (action). The reaction wasn’t from him (he was justifiably happy) – it was from another director who felt that she had also deserved a promotion and felt slighted. This wasn’t a surprise – I had anticipated her reaction. But still, her reaction was a little stronger than I had expected. What I should have done (since I saw it coming) was have a conversation with her *before* the promotion was announced and make sure she was clear on a path to promotion. She would have eventually been promoted but needed a bit more time in her current role, and need to show a bit more leadership, but was well on her way.

I have found over my 30-year career that managers and leaders at all levels would be wise to read and understand Newton’s 3rd law, and give thought to how it applies to people. It is often said that a little foresight is valuable, but I suggest that the foresight should be in the context of Newton’s 3rd Law: “If I do X, what is the opposite reaction of X?” Foresight isn’t always a chess game – sometimes it is a simple matter of action–reaction. In a larger context, corporate policies will eventually yield proportional reactions, “If our company policies do X to our customers, what will they or the public do in reaction?” Here is a somewhat extreme but informative example:

Wells Fargo had a sales-driven culture (not unusual – a lot of companies have one, and most are successful with it). As part of this culture, it made what amounted to unreasonable goals on its employees (action). As a result, employees resorted to opening up fraudulent accounts (reaction). Those who complained were fired (additional reaction). Eventually, this behavior was discovered by regulators leading to massive fines, prosecutions, a loss of customers, and significant damage to its reputation (reaction). In retrospect, Wells Fargo should have seen this coming. 2

There are many examples in the corporate world of action-reaction. Often, it is a chain of smaller action-reactions that eventually can be summed up as a big action (unrealistic sales goals) that lead to a big reaction (fraud and its consequences). Most actions are generally taken with the intent of a positive reaction: If we build a better product (action), sales will go up (reaction); If we improve customer service (action), customers will continue to buy from us (reaction). These action-reaction pairs are easy to spot. But it is often the unintended consequences that cause issues. If we set very high sales goals (action), revenue will go up (expected reaction). However, employees may falsify their numbers to meet unrealistic targets (actual reaction).

As managers and leaders, we are often immersed in our own corners of our company. Within your own corner, take a step back and try to look at the bigger picture: “If I do this, what is likely to happen down the road?” And think a bit outside the box. Also, step out from your own corner: "If my company does X, what could possibly happen down the road?"




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