It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point. The main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help you get to grips with the theory. There are also links at the bottom of this page to get your further research started.

Career Inaction Theory

Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019


Verbruggen and De Vos define their definition of career inaction on the basis of Arthur, Hall and Lawrence’s definition of careers as “the unfolding sequence of a person’s work experience over time” (2019, p. 7). From this definition, they recognise that it captures both:

  • occurrence and absence of changes of employer, job, occupation, geographical location…
  • how people experience change or the lack of change

Both crucial in the theory of career inaction. Another element that is also central and is represented in the definition they adopt is time, which implies change or stability as a process, rather than inaction as a static concept.

On the basis of this, they define career inaction as “the failure to act sufficiently over some period of time on a desire to make a change in one’s career”. (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 8).

Verbruggen and De Vos then recognise 3 key features of career inaction (2019, p. 8):

  1. the person desires to make a change in their career;
  2. the person recognises that (s)he can take action to initiate the desired change but does not do so in a sufficient way; and
  3. this situation persists for some period of time.Career inaction theory

Brief explanation of terms:

  • Prefactual thoughts: imagining how the future could be better and how that would look and feel like. Thoughts before the fact of actually making and completing/realising a change
  • Counterfactual thoughts or counterfactuals: thoughts about the outcome of new situation the client could have had. The actual facts about how the situation is at the moment runs counter to the thoughts about them. See further down for how this splits up on:
    • Process-related counterfactuals: about not putting into action a process of generating change towards the new imagined situation.
    • Outcome-related counterfactuals: thoughts about how the situation could have been different if action had been taken.

1. Awareness phase:

When people are aware they desire change (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p.8-9):

  • There is a tendency to engage in prefactual thinking – construction of mental representations of what it would be like to realise a change (“if I make this change I would have more time…”)
  • The stronger the desire to change, the more positive and intense these representations are.

2. Inaction phase:

Person either:

  • Fails to act
  • Acts in an insufficient way over some period of time

This can be fore a number of reasons we’ll touch upon further down. Action is related to time; there is a defined period in which to act, otherwise the opportunity has passed or feels it has passed.

3. Recall phase:

  • Perception that part or all of the opportunity to act has passed
  • Realisation that the desired change has not happened because of a lack of any action or sufficient action on their part.
  • When the desired change is not realised, prefactual thoughts tend to evolve in counterfactual thoughts (“if only…”).

4. Feedback loop

How someone feels about not having acted in the past may affect action/inaction in the future. This can for instance mean that:

  • The client will learn from the experience of inaction and act in the future.
  • The client may have thoughts about their inaction that preconditions them to not act in the future.


More information

To explore the different elements of career inaction further, let’s have a look at these in more detail based on the work of Verbruggen and De Vos (2019)

1. Desire to change

Can be:

  • Vague – realising a change is required or preferred but not having a clear idea of what, where to and how…
  • Crystalised – having a clear idea of what you are aiming for.

Can arise from:

  • Push factors – not being happy, being bored, suboptimal work relationships
  • Pull factors – having an attractive offer or idea, new and better opportunities etc…

What career inaction is not:

  • Career inaction is: when someone desires a change but it’s not acted upon or not acted sufficiently upon
  • Career inaction is not: when someone doesn’t change and has a stable career because there is no desire to change, and change doesn’t happen because the person is happy where they are.

2. Career inaction when people don’t act sufficiently on a desired change.

Situations in which people:

  • Delay decision making Iwithin a set time frame) – no action is taken
  • Take insufficient action to realise the change they desire – insufficient action is taken

A key aspect is that someone realises they could act more and have the opportunity to do so. This can be accompanied by feelings of regret, anger, disappointment, etc… which the client may express during the career consultation.

How people appraise their situation matters:

  • Awareness of lack of acting à awareness and recognition of having (had) some personal agency
  • Lack of making the desired change happen à thoughts of how they could have acted differently – process related counterfactual thoughts (“if only…”) à triggers a feeling of personal responsibility for their inaction.
    • Can be through internal factors – generation of counterfactual thoughts (“if only I had…”)
    • Can be through external factors – likely to develop semi factual thoughts (“even if I had, then…”)

3. Persists for some period of time

Time plays a crucial and central role in career inaction.

  • Time is inherent to ‘career’ and ‘career change’ (it takes time to make change happen) (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 10)
  • So career inaction can only happen if people do not act sufficiently on their desire for change for some period of time.
    • The length of this period of time depends on the nature of the desired change and the context or specific circumstances of the opportunity or change. If a person doesn’t enact change within a week for instance, this doesn’t mean career inaction is taking place. For instance, an opportunity may only open up in a month and no action can or needs to be taken before that.
    • The person needs to see at least part of the opportunity to act as having passed (e.g. the vacancy deadline has passed)

If the person looks back over what happened, or in the case of career inaction did not happen, they may start thinking about and ruminating what could have been if they had acted sufficiently (or at all).


How does career inaction happen?

Verbruggen and De Vos argue that “the occurrence of career inaction is stimulated by the general human tendencies to delay decision-making and to avoid action”, building on the theory of doing nothing in psychology (2019, p. 12).

They recognise 2 salient tendencies that apply particularly well to career decision making:

  • Cases of decision difficulty – there are multiple options that are not easily comparable and intermediate actions are usually needed.
  • Cases of outcome uncertainty – future outcomes are less tangible and more hypothetical and uncertain than the concrete nature of the person’s present situation.

Verbruggen and De Vos use Lewin’s field theory, and more precisely, they use the tension system perspective, quoting Gilovich & Medvec’s work. They posit that “psychological and physical forces form a tension system that keep people in a constant state” (Verbruggen and De Vos 2019, p. 12).

To explain this a bit further; in relation to regret, which is the focus of Gilovich and Mevec’s paper, this tension system tends towards equilibrium or balance, meaning that people experience inertia (a tendency to do nothing – why upset the balance?).  (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995 p. 386) .

By acting, the forces surrounding and impacting upon the person will be in flux (in motion) and no longer in equilibrium. Inertia will no longer be there and this will make it easy to take the necessary steps to restore equilibrium. Gilovich and Medvec use the example of it being easier to act when your bags are packed.

They argue that when people fail to act [when inaction occurs], they are still held within the initial state of inertia; they remain in the same state as before, with forces acting upon them in equilibrium. This makes it more difficult to overcome inertia. Behaviour is subject to momentum (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995 p. 387).

Verbruggen and De Vos then go on to conclude that people need to overcome the inertial forces they are subjected to and that prefactual thoughts may create some energy to pull free but that at the same time there are several other mechanisms strengthening the initial inertial forces, especially in case of outcome uncertainty and decision difficulty, as is typical with career decisions as we’ve seen.  (2019, p. 13).

This means that, in order to ‘upset’ the client’s balance in this scenario, and making easier for them to act, engaging the client in generating prefactual thoughts may be one action to take, in addition to working on the other inertia-enhancing mechanisms below.

These additional inertia-enhancing mechanisms are likely to operate simultaneously (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019) and can postpone decision making (action) or taking sufficient action:

  1. Experience of fear and anxiety: often felt when decisions are difficult and outcomes are uncertain. Avoidance can happen spontaneously and unconsciously and can lead to not achieving the desired change.
  2. Disproportionate influence by what will happen in the short term: difficult decisions may require many intermediate steps in the short term. These can require effort, create discomfort and entail costs. Required concrete short term actions and efforts are closer in time than expected future gains which may be uncertain, causing a disproportionality in people’s minds. This can in turn delay decision-making or a person taking sufficient action even if the anticipated future gains are significant.
  3. High cognitive demands: career decisions are often difficult because of their multi-faceted nature, and with uncertain outcomes. People’s capacity to interpret and process information is limited, causing people to be confronted with the limits of their brain capacity. This can have a paralysing effect and trigger avoidance behaviour, often outside the conscious awareness of the person.

Processes are:

  • Interdependent – working on one of these with the client doesn’t promote progression. Or… working on one of these will affect the other factors.
  • non-rational – accepting the non-rational nature of these processes is key, instead of seeing these as rational decision making by the client.
  • implicit (processes that people are not generally aware of) – generating awareness of these in the client is important.

in addition to this, Verbruggen and De Vos state that people influenced by them typically have difficulty explaining and justifying their inaction. (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 14)


When is career inaction more (or less) likely to occur?

In their paper, Verbruggen and De Vos argue that there are two elements can affect the inertia-enhancing mechanisms above (2019, p. 15):

  • The characteristics of the desired change
  • Social context

The characteristics of the desired change (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 15-17) can influence the basic cognitive and psychological processes underlying behaviour and therefore are likely to enhance the inertia-enhancing mechanisms above.

People are less likely to act or act sufficiently (inertia-enhancing mechanisms will be stronger) when the desired career change is vague and the transition is perceived to be larger or very different to their present situation. What is large depends on the person:

  • A bigger change or difference may feel more risky and
  • Generate more fear and anxiety.
  • More intermediate steps may be required and
  • Short term efforts and cost can be higher
  • While it can also be more cognitively demanding

People are less likely to act or act sufficiently when the timeframe to realise a desired change is longer compared to when it’s shorter.

  • Longer term resolutions promote inertia through heightened expectations of a better opportunity appearing in the meantime. (Fear of missing out if they act on the opportunity in the future – FOMO when acting now)
  • More cost in the short term with less certainty about a longer term successful outcome at some point in the future.
  • May be more cognitively demanding and requires cognitive resilience.
  • Little time, as opposed to a lot of time, creates time pressure and more impetus to act now.
  • A shorter time frame may induce fears (of having made the right decision) but inaction is less likely within a shorter time frame (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 17).
  • Shorter timeframes mean there may be more motivation to act which can outweigh inertia.

Characteristics of social context (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 17,18)

Job embeddedness: contextual on-the-job and off-the-job forces that keep people from leaving or that make it less likely to leave:

  • Links with other people like colleagues and the public
  • Benefits that come with the job – anxiety and fear through the perception and risk of losing more
  • Perceptions of person-environment fit
  • Perceive sacrifices involved in leaving the position
  • The perception of short term losses may be disproportionately represented compared to the perception of long term gains
  • May be more cognitively demanding
  • More vivid and concrete cognitive representation of loss – may elicit fear and anxiety

Social norms: whether the change is likely to be supported or resisted/criticised by others.

  • May generate fear and anxiety through loss of network, respect, acceptance, status..
  • More short term effort and cost leaving if the consensus is in favour of staying in current situation.
  • Additional potential risks and losses may make change more cognitively demanding and in turn may generate fear and anxieties.
  • Fear of change may generate inertia when the norm is for a long-term position with the same employer in the same job.


The impact of career inaction on the client

1. Process-related counterfactuals (recall phase):

Rumination about the client’s lack of sufficient action despite of the opportunity to do so. This are likely to be upward counterfactual thoughts (how things could have been done better), combined with feelings of personal responsibility. These tend to induce negative counterfactual emotion of regret/self-blame. These make it more difficult to justify past decisions and enactment of those. In turn, this can trigger a significant emotional response and possible regret, which will depend on how they feel about their present situation. This emotional response happens because people have an innate need to justify themselves and their actions (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 21,22)

Remember that inaction could be triggered by fear and anxiety when thinking of making the change in addition there being a disproportionate influence of what happens in the short term and the paralysing effect of cognitive demands, all of which are implicit process which can happen unconsciously. The implicit or unconscious nature of these processes may make it more difficult for the client to be able to justify why there was inaction.

As practitioners, we can explore these unconscious processes with the client, now we’ve been made aware of the possibility of those reading about this theory. This can help alleviate the client’s self-blame and regret.

2. Outcome-related counterfactuals (recall phase):

Rumination about alternative outcomes that could have happened if they had acted. The foundation of these could be laid in the prefactual thoughts in the awareness phase. The outcomes they imagined aren’t realised because of their career inaction (“if only” thinking).

Whether these outcome-related counterfactuals have a positive or negative influence depends on the client’s reality in their current situation. This means this is very much a process of comparison between their pre-factual thinking, their present situation and what could have happened if they had acted.

When the client’s reality is factually better than the counterfactual outcome, the client may have positive feelings about not acting. For instance, if because they didn’t act, an even better opportunity came along, they will have a positive view on not acting.

If the client is now in a worse position than the one they imagined, or could have had if they had acted, they will have to deal with the negative feelings and possible regret related to this.  This could happen whether the initial opportunity for change was triggered by a push factor (boring present job) or a pull factor (attractive offer they didn’t take up).



Career Inaction theory is related to a number of other similar theories, and the work by Verbruggen and De Vos strongly refers to this in their paper, but is at the same time different from some of these approaches (Verbruggen and De Vos, 2019, p. 11). They mention the difference with:

  • Schlossberg’s “non-events”: events that did not happen that is not necessarily career related. The reason for the event not happening may be out of the person’s control
  • Berg, Grant & Johnson’s “unanswered callings”: can be seen as a subtype of career inaction and is limited to occupational choice – is a ‘narrower’ concept.
  • Obodaru’s “alternative selves”: where a person would have been if something in the past had happened differently. Alternative selves are not necessarily career related either but can arise as a result of career inaction (being in a different place because of not taking action on a desired change). This is also a broader concept and doesn’t need to include a person’s agency (e.g. an external event (for instance a natural disaster) causing a person to be in a different place in their life – chaos theory!?).

I mentioned the chaos theory of careers but if you consider the link between the agency called for in planned happenstance theory and career inaction theory, I’m sure you can see some links there.



How can we work with this theory and support clients?

We are likely to see clients at two stages of the action/inaction process:

  • The awareness phase: when the client is aware they want to or need to take action
  • The recall phase: when they regret not taking action and wonder what to do next or look for an outcome.

In my view, it’s less likely to see the client during the inaction phase for obvious reasons, even though they may realise they can act more or at all.

In the awareness phase we may explore with the client on whether change comes from:

  • A push factor: do they have to make a change. Eg.: year 11 students having to make a decision on what to do next and take action.
  • A pull factor: for instance, the client’s situation is in equilibrium and they don’t strictly have to make a change, but they may have an attractive opportunity available to them on which they have to decide or for which they have to take action.
  • Or a combination of both…

Relative to the reasons why inaction may happen, we could:

  • Decision difficulty – compare actions and outcomes and break down the outcomes with the client
  • Outcome uncertainty – explore backups with the client to settle their mind and explore ways of decreasing outcome uncertainty. (‘what would you do if…’)
  • We can help the client get a more precise image of their idea of the change or new situation to motivate (sufficient) action.
  • We can increase momentum and degrease inertia through story building, helping them imagine how an outcome would feel and look like.
  • We could explore their fears and anxieties about the outcome and/or about taking action.
  • We can break down action and explore the discomfort that brings, using techniques like motivational interviewing, reframing, etc…
  • We can agree SMART outcomes with the client and check up with them (not check on them) to encourage them to start on the first action they feel they need to or could take.
  • We can bring awareness to the client of how they are feeling and label their feelings for what they are using story telling/storyboarding and other constructivist techniques.
  • We can also explore how working or starting on one issues that causes inertia will affect how they see or how they feel about other elements causing them not to act.
  • We can support the client in assessing and mitigating the risk of any change and intermediate steps.
  • We can use our counselling skills to recognise and support the client with any anxiety or fear they may have around the change and the change process.
  • We can support the client in recognising possibilities and options for managing there being other opportunities whilst they are working on change towards a longer term goal. Using Planned Happenstance Theory springs to mind here.
  • We can help the client mitigate the uncertainty of the outcome when letting go of current certainties, such as working with colleagues they like, feelings of loss and anxiety, mitigating the risk of the change, exploring their feelings around potential imposter syndrome, etc…. using counselling skills we have (whilst being aware of our skills and professional limits).

In the recall phase we can reflect back on why action wasn’t taken, using adapted techniques and exploration as above. In some cases, keeping the Career Engagement Model and States of Change Model in mind, amongst others, can be useful. In this phase, in addition to adapting the techniques above, we can:

  • Reframe regret and help the client translate this into potential positive outcomes or action in the future.
  • We can explore how they would act in the future through role play or story telling/imagining.
  • Previous inaction can be related to the present recall phase to recognise and discover patters, which we can then work on with the client so they can be broken for future cycles.
  • Paradoxically, we can relate possible positive outcomes to their inaction so future cycles of inaction won’t be enacted because of their experience now.
  • We may need to work with the client’s regret and possibly even grief about not having acted (sufficiently) and their missing out on an opportunity (still stuck in a boring job or missed out on an exciting opportunity).

If a client does come and see us in the inaction phase, I feel that the techniques we can use can be dependent upon the situation and stage within the inaction phase they are in, and can be a combination of the above.

In a different way…:

3 inertia-enhancing mechanisms:

  • the elicitation of fear and anxiety when thinking of making a change
    • apart from exploring and noticing that this is what the client is struggling with, we can…
    • we can offer support in understanding possible outcomes and explore a ‘safe landing place’ with the client in case their fears are realised and their preferred outcome isn’t achieved.
    • We can help clients develop coping mechanisms and resilience (planned happenstance, chaos theory, etc…)
    • We can explore the different elements of their decision making or situation and break this down into easily manageable tasks or steps.
  • the disproportionate influence of short-term costs over potential long-term gains.
    • Generally, we can think of and apply techniques in lowering the client’s inertia, resistance and avoidance towards short term tasks and ‘bring the long term goal nearer’.
    • We can ‘role play’ longer term outcomes or we can do visualisation activities with clients to help them bring their longer term goals more into the present.
    • We can explore the short term costs and effort needed and help the client reframe them.
    • We can support the client in lowering the threshold into resolving short term activities and the inertia generated by these (e.g. finding funding sources for certain courses, etc…)
    • We can explore the relative importance of the client’s long-term goal with them.
  • the paralysing effect of overly high cognitive demands
    • We can help the client break down the different steps or activities needed to achieve their career decision or career goal into manageable steps.
    • We can explore sources of support with and for the client to help share the load.
    • We can support the client in finding information resources that lower the cognitive load for the client.

You can hopefully see that some or even all of these activities have an effect on more than one mechanism. Important within this, and to help maximise the effectiveness of the support we offer the client, it will be important to explore the characteristics of the change they have in mind and how it feels for them, but also their context and the context in which the decision is made.



I think it is refreshing to see inaction by the client recognised in a clear theory that explores the nature and causes of inaction and offers possibilities for both the practitioner and the client. I know there already are some theories that touch upon this, especially some theories of change, including motivational interviewing. However, I feel that this theory offers a clear basis for practical steps and a way of looking at the broader context of inaction, even openly with the client.

The background of the researchers is not career guidance, however, so they don’t handle practical techniques that could help career practitioners, but I hope I have extracted enough for you to make a start at how you can implement this theory. If nothing else, the structure of their publication has made this really easy.

In this, I agree with Verbruggen and De Vos that a lot of career theories focus on the change and how to get there. Very few tackle inaction in as much depth and as clearly as they have. I don’t know about you but I’ve been exploring inaction for a long time but in a very informal and ‘broken up’ way. I think in essence, I’ve been longing for a theory that explains it this clearly and logically as Verbruggen and De Vos have.

One aspect I feel is missing here is that Verbruggen and De Vos haven’t challenged a different kind of social norm, that of a (still prevalent) stereotype of ‘the career’ and more specifically that of ‘career progression’ only in terms of moving from ‘learning a job’ over ‘establishing oneself’ into management of some sort. Having a personality type that doesn’t tie into this can make this very anxiety inducing if a client feels they have to fit in with the societal/familial norms of the social circle they move around in. I maybe would call this ‘progression anxiety’ and this would be more or less the opposite of ‘job embeddedness’. In practice, when someone is not taking action and wants to stay where they are because the next step their social environment (or even society) expects of them feels incongruent with who they are, yet they feel they should make this step. I think this is only a minor critique and I really like the theory.


Links and references


  • Gilovich, T. and Medvec, V.H. (1995) ‘The experience of regret: What, when, and why.’, Psychological Review, 102(2), pp. 379–395. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.102.2.379.
  • Lewin, K. and Cartwright, D. (1951) Field theory in social science. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Verbruggen, M. and De Vos, A. (2019) (PDF) when people don’t realize their career desires: Toward a theory of career inaction, When People Don’t Realize Their Career Desires: Toward a Theory of Career Inaction. Available at:’t_Realize_Their_Career_Desires_Toward_a_Theory_of_Career_Inaction (Accessed: 05 April 2024).

Interesting read:

If you have the chance, it’s useful and worthwhile to read (referenced on this page as well):

  • Gilovich, T. and Medvec, V.H. (1995b) ‘The experience of regret: What, when, and why.,’ Psychological Review, 102(2), pp. 379–395.

‌Other sources:

  • Verbruggen, M. and De Vos, A. (2020) ‘When people don’t realize their career desires: Toward a theory of career inaction’, Academy of Management Review, 45(2), pp. 376–394. doi:10.5465/amr.2017.0196.