Are you too comfortable with the status quo at work?

Three practical ways you can fight complacency and keep pushing for progress.

As a leader, it’s your job to always keep your organization progressing forward. That means you can never be satisfied with the status quo.

But how often do senior leaders actually challenge the status quo?

The numbers aren’t great, to be honest. The Harvard Business Review asked that very question. And 42% of the employees they surveyed across a variety of industries said never or almost never. Want to guess how many said their leaders always challenge the status quo? Just three percent!

Yikes. We’ve got to change that. Leaders who settle for the status quo miss key opportunities, lose ground with competitors, and struggle to motivate their teams.

If we want to lead well, we need a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, was on my podcast. (Catch the whole episode here.)

The NFL is more popular than ever. And when things are going well, it’s even harder to challenge your current reality. But that’s not Roger’s style. He is still out there chasing down new opportunities, like taking the NFL to England, and making sure no one gets complacent with success.

If you want to be one of the rare leaders who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, keep reading. I’ve got three practical ways to help both you and your team.

1. “Manufacture” pressure and urgency.

It can be hard to push for improvement when things are going well. If you don’t have any pressure or urgency to motivate you, then you need to manufacture some!

Here’s a fantastic exercise you can use to motivate yourself. I call it, “Hot Shot Replaces Me.” If a hot shot took over my job, what would they do?

When I was at Yum! Brands, we were on a roll. The stock was up. The team was dialed in. To stay motivated, I asked myself, “What if a hotshot took my job? What would they see?”

And I realized: the first thing they’d see is that McDonald’s is still kicking our butts!

With that insight, we created what we called “McDonald’s Immersion Day.” I asked all my general managers to spend a day at McDonald’s and figure out why they were growing faster than we were.

We saw how McDonald’s was driving sales by having breakfast, dessert, and late night offerings. As a result, we developed Taco Bell breakfast, cinnamon twists, and the legendary “Fourth Meal.” Those new ideas had a dramatic impact on our business – and it all started with that “hot shot” exercise.

2. Remember that not all change has to be sweeping.

Changing the status quo needs to be dramatic in some situations. If you’re in a major turnaround or a crisis, you may need a big overhaul to get back on track.

But don’t overlook the power of small changes. When Tom Brady was on my podcast, he talked about how he tries to be 1% better every day. Those incremental changes compound.

If you got 1% better every day, you’d be 37 times better over the course of the year. 

Imagine you’re climbing to the top of a tall building. You have two options to get there. You can either take the stairs one at a time, or you can make a series of long jumps up a ramp. Which route would you prefer? You’ll reach the top either way. But it’s a lot easier to focus on taking small steps instead of making big jumps.

If you want to push the status quo but don’t want to disrupt what’s working, find a way you and your team can make small incremental changes every day. They’re going to add up!

3. Find ways to stay courageous.

That stat I mentioned earlier – that only three percent of employees say their leaders actually challenge the status quo – is upsetting. But it’s not surprising. Why? Because change is risky. And risk is scary.

If you want to have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, you are going to need courage. And plenty of it.

Now, I can’t just tell you to “have more courage.” If only it were that easy!

But I can tell you what I’ve noticed: The best leaders I know find ways to keep themselves courageous. 

Here’s a great example from Roger Goodell. In his office, he keeps a framed piece of failed legislation that cost his father, the late Charles Goodell, his Senate seat. Charles Goodell stood up for something he believed in and introduced legislation to end the Vietnam War. He did so knowing it would likely cost him his seat in the election – and it did.

For Roger, that document is a powerful reminder to make decisions with the courage of his convictions, even when those decisions are unpopular or risky.

Ask yourself: what would motivate you to tap into your courage? Remind yourself of it every day. No one ever fought complacency or changed the status quo without it.

Remember: as a leader, it’s your job to relentlessly improve your organization. Accepting the status quo sure is easy and comfortable – but only for a little while. Eventually, your competition passes you by, your team disconnects, and suddenly nothing is easy or comfortable at all.

Don’t let that happen to you. Be proactive about fighting complacency and challenging the status quo. It takes creativity. It takes energy. It takes courage. But I know you’ve got what it takes to do it.

September 13, 2022