The status quo, the current way things are done in your organization, came about because it was successful. People in your organization learned how to conduct their jobs through trial and error. The things that worked were incorporated into how things are done, and the things that didn’t work were dropped. Over time, these became habits that are reinforced by daily interactions with other people in the organization. Unfortunately, these learned patterns can now stand in the way of your change initiative.
Even though circumstances have changed and the current way is undesirable to the organization, the status quo sticks because it still brings about success for individuals. Success to individuals is more than the overt achievement of goals. Rather, success is marked by the favorable outcomes of our day-to-day work. The reinforcement of the status quo is subtle and often occurs invisibly. Consider the following factors that secretly define success.
People stick with what works. Over time, we learn the processes, behaviors, and interactions that get the job done. Since these were successful in making progress in the past, we assume they will continue to work in the future.
When you are implementing change, past progress can be a blind spot to the new circumstances. If people are able to achieve their personal goals without participating in the change, you have misalignment. If they are getting results, even while doing unwanted activities, then the status quo will continue to have a strong hold.
We tend to think of rewards as incentives, raises, promotions and recognition, as these are powerful guide rails that maintain the status quo if not aligned with the change. However, perceived rewards go beyond official programs. Positive reactions such as agreement, acceptance, a bump in status, or an increase in autonomy make us want to repeat the performance. In the absence of feedback, getting away with an undesirable behavior means it’s okay to do it next time.
The positive feedback – or the lack of negative feedback – people perceive when they continue their same old behaviors gets in the way of change. When they are told to do one thing but are inadvertently rewarded for doing another, the mixed messages mean one thing: stick with what works.
At our core, people crave security, consistency, and control. Given a choice, we tend to prefer low risk. We stay away from making mistakes. We avoid uncertainty. Getting through the day without a fear being realized ticks a mark in the success column.
Unfortunately, change is inherently not safe. It is chock full of uncertainty, because it involves doing something new, which might not work immediately or turn out the way we planned. Without giving themselves the latitude to take risks and make mistakes, people remain where they are, doing what is familiar instead.
As social creatures, we want to be liked by others. For the good of the group, we want everyone to get along. As a result, we maintain harmony and avoid conflict. Fitting in with the team is success; being shunned or ridiculed is not.
During change, we need conflict. Open conversations about concerns expose resistance so it can be understood and dealt with. Accountability is nonexistent when people are protecting harmony instead of asking difficult questions. Maintaining harmony results in lack of disagreement and withholding of ideas. Nodding heads agree with change, but they don’t necessarily implement it.
If your organization seems stuck in the status quo, chances are that people are still experiencing success by doing things the same old way. Find the perceived successes that maintain the status quo, and learn the patterns you can interrupt to break the cycle and enable change.