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Challenge the Incumbency of Your Status Quo



If you have ever uttered “It’s how we’ve always done it” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” you may be suffering from status quo bias.


We are all susceptible to it. You have an irrational allegiance to your status quo processes and systems - the stuff you do and how you do it - and it may be a bigger problem than you think.


Whether at work or in your personal life, your status quo are your habits and processes that are so embedded in your systems and your brain that dislodging them virtually takes an act of Congress!


Speaking of Congress and the status quo, the percentage of national congressional incumbents who won their elections in 2022 was 98%. Wow. Your status quo has that same advantage of incumbency.


Chalk it up to your survival instinct. Making a change involves risk. It takes energy. It could make things worse. It could be DANGEROUS! So you have the natural tendency to stick with the cozy comfort of the status quo, even when better options are available.


A closely related cognitive reflex that leads to status quo bias is loss aversion. We work harder to keep something we already have than to gain something of equal or higher value. A great example is a study on professional golfers. They are more successful at putting to keep par than they are when putting for a birdie. When the big money of an elite tournament is at stake, that can be a costly irrational reflex.


When someone perceives that a change will cause them to lose something (time, money, status, etc.), they will fight like a cornered animal to keep it from happening. As a matter of fact, in the wild kingdom when a territory-defender is challenged by a rival, the defender almost always wins - usually very quickly.


The reason these biases can be so detrimental is that they keep us from recognizing better options, let alone embracing them.


It should be noted that I am not an advocate of change just for the sake of change. Often the status quo IS the best option. But you will never know unless you make the effort to explore other options with deliberate intention and avoid giving preference to the same old same old.


Here are some strategies for leaders to help reduce status quo bias:


Hold periodic elections

Elected officials don’t have an open-ended contract - they have to re-earn their position against challengers during the next election cycle. So too should your status quo processes, otherwise they may outlive their utility without you even knowing it. Schedule time for review. You could do it annually or quarterly or on another schedule. Identify the strongest challengers - other options that may work better. Use your team’s knowledge and creativity to uncover options you may not have thought of on your own.


Demand a recall election

Keep in mind that you don’t have to wait for the next election. When an elected official underperforms or has other perceived issues, the electorate (or opposition party) may demand a recall election. You can do that with your status quo processes as well, but to do a recall you have to know about the problems (see below on psychology safety). Look for areas that have one or more of these weaknesses:


- inefficient - it takes too much time, energy, money, etc.

- ineffective - doesn’t work as well as it once did (or at all) at achieving what you need it to

- draws complaints - people who use or are affected by the process don’t like it. It may be tedious or difficult or unwieldy.


Define Your decision process

Most decision making, from your small personal decisions to more impactful executive decisions are made haphazardly without a defined process or decision framework. There are many methods available that allow you to weigh all options by the same criteria, reducing the impact of status quo bias. Also be sure to involve as many stakeholders as feasible, especially those who would be most impacted by a potential change.


Promote psychological safety

Several years ago, Google discovered that the most important trait for team success was psychological safety. This means that team members felt they could challenge current processes and bring up issues without fear of reprisal or negative consequences. They knew they were allowed to take reasonable risks when called for, and felt safe in bringing up any problems that need addressing.


Many problems embedded in your status quo processes and systems may not be apparent to you because you are not down in the weeds. But if your team members don’t bring issues to your attention because they fear it will make them look bad or worse, those problems will fester and grow until eventually the person most affected by it decides to look for greener (and less problematic) pastures.


Finally, think about your own personality. Do you bristle at the thought of change? When someone suggests change, is your initial reaction to look for ways to discount or downplay it? Awareness of your own level of status quo bias can go a long way in helping you to break through its grip and discover new ways to improve what you do and how you do it.


Think well - live well.


- Steve Haffner, speaker and illusion expert


Want to learn more about improving your decision making and performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions

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