Overcoming Status Quo Bias to Boost Productivity


Some people push the envelope and others are happy to remain sealed in it, giving in to status quo bias. There’s probably a time and place for both, but when it comes to trying to work productively it’s better to try and see what’s around the corner than to stay put.

While it’s true that we can only do so much, our limitations should challenge us. We can learn from creative individuals who usually share the trait of attempting to reach just past the point of their skills. It doesn’t always work, of course, but like any muscle, the more we exercise it the stronger it gets.

So, how does one become accustomed to pushing the envelope and going beyond the comfort zone? Without the help of a project management office, acknowledge and respond to the phenomenon of status quo bias.

The Meaning of Status Quo

The term “status quo” is a Latin phrase, which translates to the existing state of affairs. The use is mostly attached to social or political issues, such as a candidate who is not willing to confront the status quo. This is usually meant as a negative appraisal, such as not promoting major change to address present issues such as income inequality, homelessness, etc.

Outside of the political and social, status quo has come to mean colloquially “the same old thing.” When you hear the term used in a work environment, it’s likely not to praise but criticize the existing situation. Objectively, status quo is not good for business. While the phrase itself is more observational, it does feel loaded with critique. This is because, if you are adhering to the status quo, then you are failing to innovate, and you’re unwilling to try new tools or techniques to improve.

What Is Status Quo Bias?

Status quo bias is a bias for keeping things as they are, but it is a decision more focused on emotions than facts. It also reflects a fear of loss, in that people often worry that changing something is not going to improve the situation but make it worse. That said, it’s important to know if change is needed, and whether or not the proposed change is a good solution. Maybe the status quo is the best.

Related: How to Make a Change Management Plan

When there is a preference for the status quo, it is generally explained by what is referred to as loss-aversion. With the current state being a reference point, change implies both the potential for loss and gain. If the gains appear only slightly higher than the loss, people often will not make the effort. Status quo bias can also be attributed to sunk costs, cognitive dissonance and other psychological principles that explain irrational behavior.

Status Quo Bias Examples

The term comes from experiments by economists William Samuelson and Richard Jay Zeckhauser, who in 1988 discovered status quo bias when conducting a series of decision-making tests. They found status quo bias to be the act of preferring one’s environment or current situation as it is, rather than attempting to change it.

Samuelson and Zeckhauser offered some real-life examples of status quo bias in “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making,” the article they published explaining their findings. For example, when a strip-mining project forced a town in West Germany to relocate, they were provided with options for the plan of their new town but chose to stick with a copy of the original town layout, even though it was inefficient and confusing.

A more familiar example would be the introduction of New Coke in 1985. In a blind taste-test the new formula was found superior to the original Coca-Cola. But as we all know, New Coke was discontinued in 1992 after protest and a return of Coke Classic, which continued to out-sell the tastier new product.

combat status quo bias and get productive

Ways to Overcome Status Quo Bias

Now that you know what status quo bias is, you’ll be able to identify it in yourself and work towards overcoming it. Why? If you don’t change things, they obviously stay the same, which blocks our ability to improve.

In order to become more productive, there are ways to combat status quo bias. That doesn’t mean blindly changing. Be sure to note if the changes are increasing your productivity. If they’re not, well, swallow your pride and revert. That’s okay. You must keep experimenting to find the best solution.

1. Be Yourself

This might sound like some meaningless affirmation, but there’s more to it than merely a mindless feel-good solution. In 2012 researchers surveyed over 150 MBA graduates who were only a few months into their jobs and found that those who felt they could authentically be themselves were more engaged and committed to their organization.

According to the research, employees who felt safe and operated in an open and welcoming environment did better on their performance ratings from supervisors. Being yourself also helps to avoid burnout. Not saying something appears to take more energy and has greater negative effect on a person than speaking their minds.

What does this have to do with status quo bias? Well, if you’re relaxed at work, and the powers that be on your job are willing to seriously consider what you have to say, then it’s less likely you’ll just accept things they way they are. You’ll respond to current conditions with advice on how to improve it.

2. Have a Mission Statement

Businesses have mission statements, short descriptions of what it is they’re in business to do. They act as a type of signpost to make sure the company doesn’t go off-road or off-brand. It’s a way to check what you’re doing against what you as an organization have tasked yourself to do.

It’s easy to get involved in work and to be taken into uncharted territories where you’re busy, but not actively working towards the goals and objectives that the business was set up to achieve. You need a baseline, so to speak, to measure your progress and to keep you on track.

The same can apply to the individuals who are employed at the company. Whatever that personal mission statement is, it can provide individuals with a safety line that will carry them through the wilderness of their jobs. It’s a great practice for managers to give these to new and old employees alike. Think of it as a metric to measure status quo against the goals and objectives of the business. If there’s a disconnect or any shortcomings, they’ll be more evident.

Related: What Is OKR, And Why Are Top Companies Using It?

3. Know Your Signature Strengths

What are you uniquely good at? That’s your signature strength. The better you know what your skills are, the more sharply you can apply them on the job. Harvard Business School professor, Francesca Gina, notes that it’s important to cultivate workers’ strengths, as following norms can limit what they bring to the organization.

She goes on to say that managers need to help employees identify and develop what they’re good at. That means not only once a year for their performance review but more regularly by offering positive feedback. It helps to share those stories of success. It triggers positive emotions and helps people realize the impact they have on others. This leads to focusing more on their strengths and less on trying to fit in.

Trying to fit in is only another way of embracing status quo. One fits in by conforming to what is already established. Questioning status quo makes one stand out, which is not something someone will do if they’re not encouraged to act on their strengths and given a safe space in which to speak openly.

Here’s another example of status quo bias, your software. How many companies have you worked at that have antiquated software or tools that are no longer doing the job? ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that is constantly evolving to meet your needs. Our newly introduced kanban boards visualize workflow and a real-time dashboard track progress as it happens to help you identify ways to improve the process before it’s too late. Best of all, you can try it free with this 30-day trial.

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