Don’t let opportunities for growth bypass you

There’s an old adage that says people are resistant to change. There’s some truth in that. This can be challenging when you want to move a team forward to try new ideas. There is no perfect business. As the quote from author William S. Burroughs says, “When you stop growing, you start dying.” Fortunately, there are ways to help teams act on new ideas.

Understand, however, that people’s resistance is likely not something they’re consciously choosing. The expectation that change equals loss is, surprisingly, grounded in neuroscience. All humans have a set of cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that you use for problem-solving and decision-making.

There are a few things to understand about cognitive biases before you dive into why they’re problematic.

  • First, cognitive biases are not the same kind of bias related to diversity and inclusion initiatives. That’s a completely different concept. Cognitive biases are a neuroscience concept about how our brains operate.
  • Second, cognitive biases are not We all share the same cognitive biases. It is not as if you have one cognitive bias and somebody else has a different one. We share these same mental shortcuts.
  • Thirdly, cognitive biases operate subconsciously. You are not aware you’re relying on these shortcuts.

People tend to shy away from truly new ideas and opt for the safest choices. It’s because of a mental shortcut that says change invites risk. It’s due to a specific cognitive bias called the status quo bias.

How the status quo bias works

The status quo bias is that you instantly and subconsciously presume change to mean loss. You assume that the current state of affairs is the best, and anything other than that will be negative.

So, when you’ve asked a team to look for new ideas and then consider the options, people tend to choose the safest, most incremental and least disruptive ideas. In other words, they lean toward the least amount of change possible.

What to do when change is needed

There are situations when change is needed, such as when new government regulations go into force or you can’t see clients in person. Never making changes causes businesses to flounder. Ensure that those whose buy-in you want don’t let the status quo bias get in the way of considering problem-solving ideas.

Here are some tips to help you get around the status quo bias:

  1. Emphatically include in your list of criteria that you want ideas that are disruptive, new and will make a significant impact. Clearly stating that as a criterion will make a difference and will remind people that they need to explicitly consider some of the more interesting, unique and potentially harder-to-implement ideas.
  2. Require the group to list the potential downsides of changing nothing. Changing nothing is a decision. And, unfortunately, it is often the decision made by default. There are times when the window of opportunity shuts. So, when a group decides not to decide, they need to consider the true consequences of that decision. Given, though, that they thought they needed to meet and develop new ideas, there’s already a feeling change is needed.

To become a more visionary and creative leader, you must ensure that new, interesting and more challenging ideas get real consideration. And your team needs assistance so they can do the same. These tips for getting around the status quo bias will help your team consider the potentially more disruptive ideas you may need to fundamentally solve the challenge at hand and help your business thrive.

Susan Robertson is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard University, she brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. To learn more, visit   

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