How to Challenge the Status Quo as a Leader

Marc Romanelli/Tetra images/GettyImages

If you’ve had a child or a younger sibling, you’re familiar with the “why" phase. If you haven’t, it goes like this:

Toddler throws his cookie on the floor.

You: “Don’t do that!”
Child: “Why?”
You: “Because the floor is dirty.”
Child: “Why?”
You: “Because we walk on it.”
Child: “Why?"
You (beginning to tire): “Because we can’t fly.”
Child: “Why?”

That child might just grow up to be the next Steve Jobs.

Challenge the Status Quo Definition

Status quo is a Latin phrase that means “in the state in which” or in other words, the current state of affairs. It’s sometimes used to refer to the way things are done and always have been done. When you’re in the armed forces, saluting your superiors is status quo.

Challenging the status quo usually starts with asking "why?" and "what if?" Why do we soldiers always salute our superiors? What if we didn’t? In the military, you’d be shut down right then and there. If you’re working in a business culture that doesn’t encourage this sort of thing, you might find yourself assigned to the mail room.

The point is that when you challenge the status quo, you must be prepared to deal with the repercussions. Challenging the way things are or the way things have always been done can cause people to feel threatened, criticized, annoyed or all of the above. None of this means you shouldn't do it. You just have to know how to do it.

Challenging the Status Quo Examples

Most people operate by the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, the best leaders know that the path to creating a great product or a great company is, “It may not be broke, but how can I make it better?” Just because you might experience some backlash by challenging the status quo doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. In fact, as a business leader, you should make a habit of challenging the status quo.

Some of the greatest inventions and ideas have come from someone questioning the status quo. Steve Jobs was famous for it. Pope Francis has repeatedly taken positions on controversial issues that take real life into consideration – something that previous popes were not in the habit of doing. Recently, he appointed a pro-Islam bishop to Marseilles, France, a country that is known to harbor some strong anti-Muslim sentiments.

As a business leader, it’s easy to get caught up in your responsibilities and the daily pressures of keeping everything afloat, but challenging the status quo is one of your responsibilities too. Be brave and be controversial, but most of all, be ready.

How to Do It

Challenging the status quo takes bravery, involves risk and requires the ability to tolerate uncertainty for a while, but it can lead to positive changes and innovation. Begin by asking why: Why do we always use FedEx for all of our shipments? Why have we never put together a cross-functional team?

As you work on answering the questions, focus on your customers. If you only think about your competition, you’ll start comparing what they do to what you do. That’s here and now. Challenging the status quo is about there and the future.

One wise boss once told his employees, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you also bring at least two ideas for solutions.” This rule works well when you’re challenging the status quo. Before you start questioning, be ready to offer alternatives.

Challenge the Status Quo Culture

If you want to foster a culture in your business where challenging the status quo is acceptable and even encouraged, you’re in for quite a ride. Being receptive to employees’ challenges can take a lot out of you, but it can also lead to some great ideas that lead to great profits.

When you listen to employees' ideas, they feel more engaged in their jobs and loyal to the company. Employee retention reduces costs and creates continuity. Operations run smoothly, and customers enjoy consistent service. Hooray for challenging the status quo!

References

About the Author

LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.