From Status Quo to Status Go

If you want to get a buy in from your leaders and employees for a certain change project, don’t just focus op positive aspects of the new situation. Also remember to invest time in creating an emotional connection with the pain of the status quo.

“Dear colleagues, today I would like to inform you on a change that we are going to install over the next few years.” The CEO pulls up his pants and clicks to the next slide of his presentation. “We will transition to a self organizing structure, giving more power to the teams. As a team member, you will have more autonomy on how to handle cases. Our clients will be served better and quicker.”

This road show of company X is very likely not having the expected effect. The employees don’t really feel they need more power. They have great relationships with their bosses. More autonomy sounds like even more work. In short, they are not buying the change.

A question mark is scarier than a mediocre answer

They can’t be blamed. In fact, these are to a certain extent rational thoughts. Prospect theory of Kahneman and Tversky (1992) shows that people felt the loss of what they had more than they felt equivalent gains. This so-called endowment effect is just one reasons why people prefer the status quo, as this article by Tejvan Pettinger shows us. Others are attachment, loyalty, fear of the unknown and inertia: people may simply not want the hassle of changing.

A more economic way of framing this objection is stating that people rather avoid the cost of making a choice. They stick with an answer that they know, even if they know it’s not great, rather than worry over a choice that leads to unknown territories. A question mark is scarier than a mediocre answer.

Human beings are lazy, complacent creatures and we rather stick to the default path instead of exploring new opportunities. Pettinger gives the example of how in the US, the states New Jersey and Pennsylvania offered two choices related to insurance law: a cheap one and an expensive one. In New Jersey the default option was the cheaper one. In Pennsylvania the default option was the expensive one. In both states, the default option got selected by the majority of the citizens.

Moreover, as the employees (or leaders, or other stakeholders) will rightfully assume, every change comes with a cost of money, time and/or energy. If you want to change something, you will have to make an effort. A learning track is needed to go from situation A to situation B.

The invisible risks of doing nothing

But when we take a closer look at the definition of complacency, we see that the concept goes beyond choosing the safer option from a perspective of laziness. Complacency is “a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.”

The dangers of the status quo remain invisible.

This is where refusing to consider alternatives becomes irrational. How well known is this Status Quo actually? In many cases, the risk of doing nothing is a lot higher than the risk of going for the change.

Embrace the pain of the status quo

Therefore, I think we could benefit from taking the time to make people aware that the status quo also has negative aspects. Illustrate or visualize the negative aspects of the status quo: collect things that are not working well, that could be better, processes that are difficult to run…

Build a shared experience around the pain of the status quo.

We have to foster an emotional connection with the status quo in all its elements. How to start? 

In this article Faye Bradshaw give some interesting leads. First of all: ask the right questions. How come things are done in this certain way? Listen to people for real — be prepared to look at the situation from all different perspectives. What do they suggest moving to the future? What are the elements of the status quo that are important for them?

I would argue that if we put some more effort in recognizing the status quo, it’s easier for people to adopt a change mindset. This means both acknowledging the aspects of familiarity that make change scary, aspects of loyalty that make it weird, etc. and highlighting the painful elements that might make an alternative attractive,

Replace the fear of change with the fear of Status Quo

“OK, I understand some of you are very happy you have a manager. That is something we have to take into account. When we spoke to you we heard that it takes these managers a lot of time to delegate all questions put on their plates. You also shared that when Y got another job there was a huge knowledge gap on topic Z. We are sure that if we continue working in the same hierarchy and in the same silos, we won’t be able to survive a duplication of clients. Something that might well be the case if we look at evolutions in the outside world. We have to prepare ourselves for this.”

Explain why the change is necessary, as Mark Murphy argues in this article. And most of all, make sure people are guided through the process of change. 

Dare to leave the Status Quo and change it into Status Go

Share positive stories on the small steps of change that already happened and be patient. 

Change takes time.