Why Do Individuals and Organizations Behave Badly: Changing the Status Quo Bias

Author: Bryan Ritchie

Katheryn Schulten said in the New York Times: “People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.” Why is it that even when we know what to do is it so hard to do it?

This question bedevils both individuals and organizations. One answer has to do with a term in the social science literature called “path dependence.” The idea is that once started down a particular path, it’s hard to change that inertia. Put another way, the chains of the current path hold us back from escaping. Basic physics would agree. Think of a rocket trying to break free of earth’s gravity. It takes enormous force to get it into space.

If it takes so much energy to change individually, consider the challenge when we need to change an entire organization! Everyone in the organization needs to change in the same way and at the same time! The energy required to change course is compounded exponentially. Think of another example of a train going down the track. Very easy to stop when it hasn’t started moving. But once a track is chosen and the train is moving, changing directions requires tremendous energy.

Just recognizing the importance and nature of the energy required to changing status quo is important and leads to important insights on how to change direction:

First, change demands both a great amount of energy and energy that is also focused. Think of the sun. Although it has tremendous energy, most of it is very diffuse. It can start a fire only when it is focused through a magnifying glass. The same is true for any individual or organization. Unfocused energy accomplishes little more than exhaustion. We all know the individual or organization that frantically runs around, but accomplishes little. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, offered that his company’s epic performance comes from a tremendous amount of energy focused on a small number of projects. The conclusion is that change is only possible for a few things at a time. If you or your organization can’t focus on a very small number of things to change, you will fail.

Second, great amounts of focused energy will only be effective if applied persistently over time. Everyone knows the person or organization that has gotten focused on one effort and put a great burst of energy behind it, only to fail because of inconsistency. Think of the many times you or someone you know has started a new fitness plan based on a New Year’s resolution. The focus is there and the energy is there. It’s just often not sustained. The conclusion is that if you can’t maintain your effort, there is little reason to start. Great outcomes almost never happen quickly.

Third, consistent review of progress is necessary to understand whether the amount and focus of energy will be sufficient to change direction. How much energy to apply and how to apply it can only be known if progress is evaluated relative to desired outcomes. Too much force applied to the wrong places can destroy both an individual and an organization. For example, while it is important to apply energy and focus to exercise and eating right, if a person chose to apply too much focused energy, say to eat nothing and work out for hours per day, the outcome would be disastrous.

In the end, change is never easy. But it’s not impossible. The good news is that inertia also works to our advantage once we’ve developed productive habits that strengthen an individual or organizational culture of performance. The challenge is to keep the good paths we’re on while changing the unproductive. Applying focused energy in a persistent and consistent manner and carefully noting appropriate progress can get us there.

Bryan Ritchie and James Western are co-founders of GrowthSPORT, a successful consulting company whose mission is to improve SCORES (Stimulate Culture, Optimize Results and Engage Staff) for Teams, Divisions, Departments and Organizations through the SPORT model (Strategic Alignment, Personnel Performance, Operational Execution, Results Accountability and Team Strength), which are the Five Core Elements of Success.

GrowthSPORT provides resources, tools and experienced consultants to effectively implement the SPORT performance model from companies ranging from Startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Feel free to reach out to GrowthSPORT at (801) 676-2500 or at www.growth-sport.com.


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