Barriers to Change: System Justification

How to respond when people believe the status quo is functioning as it should—and if others can't hack it, it's their fault

Sometimes the most frustrating part of change making is convincing people that there’s even a need for a change in the first place. Despite any evidence you bring, from turnover rates to missed deadlines, they dismiss your concerns with a shrug, or excuse it by saying, “that’s just the way it is” with the implicit message, “and that’s the way it ought to be.”

There’s any number of reasons for why they might respond this way: they might genuinely feel like it’s not a problem in the first place, or it’s someone else’s problem, or that making a change just isn’t worth it (to them). But what if you know that they’re being negatively impacted, and not only do they refuse to acknowledge it, they defend the current situation? 

Acknowledging that your workplace needs to change can lead to anxiety and stress. Defending the status quo, even when actively harming you, may provide temporary relief, especially if change feels particularly hard.

Take, for instance, a workplace in which late nights and weekends are always expected as the launch of a new project nears. Or teams who must cater to a customer’s every whim, no matter how demanding, because “that’s how it’s always been done” in the industry. Far from admitting it’s a problem, they’ll argue that the organization should function this way, and that individuals should acquiesce—and if some people just can’t “hack it,” well, it’s their fault, not the culture’s. 

This is known as system justification, a theory which was first described by social psychologists J.T. Jost and Mahzarin Banaji 30 years ago, and has since expanded to refer to a situation in which individuals defend an existing system, even if it goes against their interests.

It might seem counterintuitive—surely, someone who’s disadvantaged by a system would want to change it? But when system justification is in play, they internalize that they are failing, not the system. It actually serves as a coping mechanism: first, people who stand up and try to make change are often branded as complainers, and their social ties suffer. Second, acknowledging that your workplace isn’t that great, actually, can lead to anxiety and stress. If you have to accept that you’re being victimized by an unjust workplace, it may be less psychologically stressful to defend the status quo. 

You’re more likely to encounter system justification as a barrier to change under certain conditions:

  • System threat. If the system itself is being attacked by outsiders, people within the system feel called upon to defend it—think of a company being scrutinized in the press for questionable business practices.
  • System dependence. When individuals depend on the system for their livelihood or identity, they tend to defend it, and the leaders of the system, more ferociously.
  • System inescapability. The less individuals feel capable of leaving a system, the more they will resist criticism. This is often because the system itself feels inevitable or impossible to change, or that there’s no viable alternative.
  • Low personal control. The less control an individual feels, the more they want something to feel in control—and therefore, will resist challenges to a system that provides a sense of stability. .

Overcoming system justification is a delicate situation, but there are some things you can do to move people towards action: 

  • Adopt a less confrontational approach. You can’t argue people into a better vision for the future—if anything, a perceived attack may cause them to double down on their defense of current conditions. Instead, you must be patient and willing to engage people in meaningful, two-way conversations. Be non-judgmental, sharing stories that deepen your understanding of their situation, and seek out shared values and goals. Ask questions that explore inconsistencies in their views, but don’t frame them as “gotcha” moments or tricks. 
  • Give them a viable alternative to the status quo. To believe change is possible, people need to be exposed to alternative systems; to understand that their current reality isn’t the only way. Break them out of their tunnel vision: share stories and case studies from other organizations, go on “road shows” or invite guest speakers in to share what they’ve created. As much as possible, make these examples tangible, not just a theoretical debate or wishful thinking. 
  • Make change the default setting. People tend to accept whatever feels inevitable. If it feels like your organization’s culture will never change, they won’t act—but if they feel that change is inevitable, they’re more likely to participate. Use activities like retros and 1:1s to create venues for feedback and iteration, and look for examples and proof points that show that change is already happening within the organization.
  • Reduce the threat level. As a leader, you’re probably keenly aware of the risks your organization must respond to, and it’s entirely possible you’re facing a genuine crisis that demands immediate attention. But if you’re putting too much emphasis on the threat, you might actually be putting people on the defensive, which makes them less likely to want to take a risk. Instead, think about how you can build psychological safety and find opportunities that are “safe to try.” 
  • Give them greater autonomy. When individuals feel like they don’t have control over their own lives, they’re willing to give more power to systems in an attempt to feel like at least something is in control. First, remind them of the power they do have; sometimes folks just have learned helplessness and think they can’t make change. Then, find areas where they can reassert control so they feel less dependent on the system, and more open to questioning it.
  • Build on the current system. People are more receptive to change when it preserves the existing system. Reduce fear of the unknown by focusing on incremental change or continuous improvement, rather than insisting on a radical overhaul if it is not actually needed. 
  • Phone a friend. Finally, consider that you may be the wrong person to deliver the message of change: if you’re considered an “outsider,” you may be considered a threat. Can you find a mutual connection within their circle who is better placed to have a conversation about change?

Source: “System justification in organizational contexts: How a motivated preference for the status quo can affect organizational attitudes and behaviors.” Devon Proudfoot, Aaron C. Kay. March 2014.

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