Given a personality profile that loves predictable, stable, high-quality systems and processes, I may seem the unlikely author of a missive on the “deadly allure of the status quo.”

Well, life teaches hard lessons to the willing. Hard, but good lessons. Three decades of institutional leadership through seasons of abundance and scarcity have hammered home some hard-won truths. Here’s the one I want to talk about today.

Few traps threaten our success like the comfort of the status quo.

First, a personal story, then an explanation.

Many years ago, I bought an insurance policy aimed at a need my wife and I might face in later life. It was expensive, but it was a good policy with a great company, and I could afford it – security for our later years. Then the premiums began to go up. This went on year after year. The company was forthright about it. It was a newer kind of policy and they admitted that my policy was underpriced. As the years passed, I began to wonder whether the cost was worth the benefit. But every time I contemplated changing, I thought about the thousands of dollars I had already spent on premiums, dollars I would not get back if I cancelled. I felt the uncertainty of future risks and didn’t want to make a decision I would regret. So, I kept going. Then I came to retirement and suddenly those premiums became a much larger percentage of my disposable income. In my heart of hearts, I knew I needed to change, but the money I had already spent, coupled with the fear of making a decision I’d regret, kept me stuck.

That’s a textbook picture of what scholars who study human behavior call “status quo bias.”

William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser coined the term in 1988. This is one of several “cognitive biases” identified by human behavior scholars. In controlled experiments they found that when people make important decisions, they instinctively tend to favor the familiar over potentially promising but unfamiliar change. They define status quo bias quite simply as “a non-rational or biased preference for the current ways of doing things” (Cherry).

Turns out most of us will trade an unfamiliar but potentially beneficial future state for a familiar but less rewarding (and even potentially damaging) current situation every time – unless something dislodges us almost against our will. This is the deadly allure of the status quo bias.

Christopher Anderson’s research identified four causes of this bias. First, most of us have an innate preference for stability over change, predictability over chaos. Faced with the choice to try a new way, our first move is often to minimize the promise or importance of the new, to let ourselves off the hook.

Second, Anderson found a common response he called “anticipated regret and blame.” What if we try the promising change, and it doesn’t work out? We fear the regret and blame this would bring. We may complain about our current circumstances, but leaders are punished more severely for trying new things that don’t succeed, than simply maintaining the less-than-stellar status quo.

Third, Anderson found that we downplay the costs of the status quo and maximize the potential costs of change. There is another cognitive bias called “hyperbolic discounting” – the bias “that encourages us to ignore the value of future results compared to immediate results” (Mingasson). One of the hardest things for us to accept is that, sometimes, when the status quo isn’t working for us anymore, the costliest thing we can do is nothing.

Fourth, another factor that makes us favor the status quo is the difficulty in choosing our preferred future. Letting go of our unexamined preference for the status quo brings us face-to-face with the challenge of choosing a pathway to a better future. That choice can be the most paralyzing challenge of all (Hammerel).

How does this affect the institutions we serve?

I had the privilege of leading my institution through cycles of growth and decline. When we faced periods of stagnancy and decline, my teams worked diligently to analyze our situation. They devised brilliant interventions to prepare for new seasons of vitality and growth.

But time after time, our need to replace familiar but failing products, policies, and processes came up against the deadly allure of the status quo. We struggled to accept the fact that, often, the familiar “right” way of doing things that had brought us so much success in the past, was now the very thing that was exacerbating our decline.

To our detriment, we found ways to postpone the vigorous reassembling of our institution to be better, to serve better, to become more vibrant and successful.

To be sure, change for the sake of change is seldom wise. Sometimes it is best to stay the course. But all too often, our reluctance to reexamine the policies and systems that solved a problem for us in the past, or the products and services that drove past growth, eventually makes our institution sclerotic, numb to the realities of changing contexts, oriented too much to our own comfort and security and not enough to the needs of those we serve.

What should we do to help our institutions break free from our status quo biases? I love the five practical steps that Matthew Mingasson outlines in his article, “Get Out of Your Own Way.” I’ve seen these interventions help my teams to break free from the allure of the status quo.

Step 1: Accept that cognitive biases exist.
Step 2: Create a safe space for your team to understand and explore these biases.
Step 3: Don’t be afraid to fall in love with problems.
Step 4: Be open and generous to experimentation and creativity.
Step 5: Take action. Start small. You can learn along the way.

On our best days, using interventions like these, our teams would manage to recognize our bias for the status quo, and free ourselves to go where our research and best instincts told us we had to go. It was usually hard. Some of our experiments failed. But when we did this, we moved away from stagnation toward vibrancy and health.

What about that insurance policy I didn’t really need that was eating up my resources?

Eventually, I did the demanding work to better understand our needs. I accepted the reality that I didn’t have certainty when I bought the policies, and neither would I have absolute certainty in my decision to change. I gave myself permission to make the best decision with all the information I have today.

I gathered the courage to change, and I moved on.

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