By Glenn Llopis – Forbes
How often have you seen senior leaders challenge the status quo or ask employees to think outside the box? That’s the question the Harvard Business Review put to more than 1,000 employees across industries nationwide. The result? 42% said never or almost never, 32% said sometimes, and 26% said fairly often or very often. Only 3% said always.
I’m not surprised by these percentages. It’s clear that organizations want their leaders and employees to challenge the status quo. I’ve spoken at more than a dozen conferences and organizations this year alone on that theme. Many of the leaders in the audience get excited about the idea of change management and transformation in search of the next big thing. They enjoy thinking about the endless possibilities, and most of their employees in turn are hopeful that their leaders will finally change their mindsets from simply managing growth and maintaining the status quo to recreating growth and challenging it.
And then what happens? Nothing. The organization does not enable change and the leaders’ excitement quickly fades when faced with what it will take to pull the change off, especially if the company is not backing their play. The employees? They are left with nothing but the existing foundation, and foundations were not built to disrupt. Foundations were built for substitutional thinking (different versions of existing templates, approaches and thinking), not evolutionary thinking (strategies for real change where leaders, employees and the organization evolves).
Again, unsurprising. After all, status quo is defined as preserving the existing state of affairs. It’s about doing what is comfortable and thinking inside the existing box. This is so much easier than being uncomfortable and thinking outside the box – or that the box is bigger than you ever imagined. It is also easier than thinking you might not be thinking in the right boxes anymore to recreate growth – and you need to be vulnerable enough to go back to the beginning and touch the business as much as you lead it to not let the marketplace pass you by.
What do I mean by that? I was set to speak with a company that is struggling to reclaim its leadership position in an industry that is struggling overall. Like many businesses, this company has a headquarters and then operations around the country. The people in operations are struggling to sell and headquarters wanted to know why. So, before the call, I visited a few of their operations sites. I talked with the people there who work with customers every day. They told me the fundamental issue is that a couple of years ago they were selling products that were innovative and it was easy – and now it is hard because their competitors’ products had passed those innovations by. They did not blame headquarters. They just said that everybody at headquarters talked about change and transforming the brand’s products, but no one wanted to take the time to understand what is going on and include them in discussions about what was needed to innovative the products and grow the business.
When I reported this to headquarters, they basically dismissed what I found and said that their leaders in operations simply needed to work harder to lead again and wanted me to show them how to do that. In other words, they wanted to maintain the status quo and get their people to make the existing templates work – not challenge them. They didn’t accept any responsibility for the problem.
This is exactly how organizations and their leaders get stuck in the status quo – and we need them to be unstuck. But you cannot have real transformative impact on employees, leaders and organizations unless they are truly willing to challenge the status quo – which many leaders are too scared to do for five big reasons:
1. They’re unwilling to turn the spotlight of accountability on themselves
Responsibility and accountability require real work – especially working with a generous purpose to reach out to others and know what you don’t know. Without that you will never reclaim the trust of your people and promote inclusive leadership that engages all individuals in a company as a strategy for business growth and innovation.
2. They’re afraid of risk
Who wants to put their reputation on the line when there is no actual support for taking a risk? But we must because leaders who want real change must embrace risk as the new normal. We live in uncertain times. We must learn to anticipate the unexpected and create high-performance environments in which people work well together under pressure and can readily adapt to a constant wave of change to stay ahead of the market and the competition.
3. They don’t know how to get started
When leaders lack an entrepreneurial mindset, they can’t align expertise, break down silos, operationalize change, or figure out ways to evolve and incentivize their people to connect the dots in an environment that encourages outside-the-box thinking. Instead, everyone is just stuck.
4. They lack organizational readiness
Do your corporate values support the behaviors that encourage one to challenge the status quo and are employees and leaders living them and consistently standing by them? If they aren’t, your core values are not rooted in the belief that success comes to those who are surrounded by people who want their success to continue and are inspired to do more – and your people are just doing what they are told.
5. They have not evolved as leaders
I know hundreds of senior leaders who have been in their jobs for 25 years or more and think they know everything because it worked for 25 years. But when you have not reinvented yourself as a leader to serve the changing workplace and marketplace, you have not gotten your hands dirty enough to evolve – and see and seize new opportunities even as you manage existing ones.
Simply put, challenging the status quo actually means challenging it – something everybody wants but few want to do. Status quo is scarcity mentality thinking in which for one person or group to win, the other side must lose. That’s what Washington DC is all about these days. But in business, it isn’t the other side or even our competitors getting in our way. It is ourselves and our inability to face our fears and get out of our comfort zones for those five big reasons.