Barriers to Change: Status Quo Bias

When "good enough" isn't good enough anymore, you must convince teams that change is worth the pain of disruption

Your frontline employees are at a breaking point: they can’t serve customers as effectively using their existing technology. Perhaps a vendor’s contract is up for renewal, and it’s not clear that they’re delivering as much value as they used to. Or maybe a new product has just entered the market, and it has the potential to become a serious competitor in the long-term.

You have to convince skeptics that change is worth it—the improvement can’t just be 1:1.

It’s clear—to you, at least—that the organization needs to make a serious change to your operating procedures, but you have one hold-out who insists on “business as usual.” This may be because:

  • They’re lost touch with, or been insulated from, consumers. Typically, higher-ranking leaders have less interaction with customers and a greater likelihood that they’ll receive filtered bad news. At best, this means leaders may simply not be aware of evolving needs or market disruptions. But at worst, they could be willfully ignorant, burying their heads in the sand rather than acknowledging a need to operate differently.
  • They value comfort above relevance. Everyone already has packed schedules and competing demands on their time. If you’re asking them to do something different, or even dedicate time to evaluating a decision to do something differently, you’re asking them to invest extra energy and focus that they don’t have. And if the existing power structure or conditions already suit them, the prospect of change is even less enticing. 
  • They may be trying to protect the company. A new approach inherently has risks, so if the current structure is working adequately, why mess with it? They may have also seen previous change initiatives backfire—especially ones that feel like “change for the sake of change”—and want to protect their people from the disruption that comes with change.

This is status quo bias, defined by William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser as the desire to maintain an existing situation and oppose acts that would lead to change. It’s driven largely by loss aversion (people don’t like to give up what they have) and the endowment effect (people overvalue what they currently have). To overcome it, you have to convince skeptics that change is worth it. The improvement can’t just be 1:1—after all, that wouldn’t account for the effort you’d have to put into making the change.

To convince people they need to get on board with change:

  • Explore why they’re defending the status quo. Are they simply unaware of the need for change? Are they skeptical that it’s worth the effort? Or do they oppose change because it will negatively affect them? As the famous Sinclair goes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
  • Frame the status quo itself as a loss to the organization. Realistically, the status quo may be quite effective for the individual—especially if they’re not directly affected by market changes. Collect evidence that continuing on the existing path will actually result in loss—declining market share or stock price, missed opportunities, increased turnover—and connect this to something that does impact them. 
  • Get them excited about a better future. Remember, it’s not enough for change to be slightly better—you must explain why an alternative is worth going through all the trouble of change. Of course, don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
  • Create a coalition for change. Leverage existing relationships: if people within the hold-out’s inner circle can share how they’re being negatively impacted by the status quo, this may increase motivation to change. Hearing the same message from multiple sources can also help convince them that it’s a genuine problem, and not just one person complaining.
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Barriers to Change: Status Quo Bias
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