3 Ways to Get Over ‘Status Quo Bias’ at Work

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Photo: Gregory Kramer/Getty Images

You may recall BlackBerry, Borders, Polaroid, and Myspace — companies that, respectively, got their lunches eaten by Apple, Amazon, Instagram, and Facebook. According to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, these companies all suffered from pathological status quo bias, or a predilection for keeping things as they are. “Because we feel validated and reassured when we stick to our usual ways of thinking and doing,” she writes, “we weight the potential losses of deviating from the status quo much more heavily than we do the potential gains, we favor decisions that maintain the current state of affairs.”

In a slick new cover story for the Harvard Business Review, Gino unpacks the many dangers of over-conformity, where it comes from — we like to fit in! Agree with your manager! Who cares that much anyway! — and how to encourage more, as she calls it, “constructive nonconformity.” It’s all very punk rock, in a Cantabrigian kind of way, and is definitely worth the read in full. It’s a win-win for the organization and the employee: The company gets more varied and better ideas, the people who work there do better work and have greater well-being.

What’s super eye-catching is how much “being yourself at work” isn’t just a soulless corporate bromide but something that has actual effects on people’s lives. Gino digests many such findings; let’s riff on three here:

Be authentic.

For a 2012 paper, researchers surveyed 154 MBA graduates who were a mere four months into their jobs, and they found that people who felt they could authentically be themselves at work were 16 percent more engaged and more committed to their companies than people who had to cloak their identities. That same paper found that teachers who felt they could express themselves got higher performance ratings from their supervisors. Other research has found an association between inauthenticity and burnout, suggesting that it takes lots of effort to mute your personality at work — so you end up getting dejected.

It’s better to take Bill Murray’s advice: “Someone told me some secrets early on about living. You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed. No matter what it is, no matter what your job is, the more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did it,” he said in a 2014 talk at the Toronto Film Festival. “And it’s changed my life, learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do. I’m not the greatest or anything. But I really enjoy what I do.”

Make the implicit explicit.

Rather than leaving job descriptions as this vague thing that you breeze by during the interview process, lay out the responsibilities. Gino holds up Morning Star, a California tomato company, as a great example with their “personal commercial mission statements.”

The results are beautiful capitalist poetry: Founder Chris Rufer says his mission is “to advance tomato technology to be the best in the world and operate these factories so they are pristine,” while an employee on the shipping team declares that their duty is “to reliably and efficiently provide our customers with marvelously attractive loads of desired product.”

Reflect on what you’re good at.

In a working paper, Gino and her colleagues asked governmental leaders around the world to ponder their “signature strengths” — what they are uniquely good at — and how they can put them into practice. They also, quite endearingly, read accounts of their being at their best from friends and colleagues, which is something that should happen at every birthday party.

The result: “These leaders displayed more engagement and innovative behavior than members of a control group, and their teams performed better,” Gino writes. The more you’re in touch with your strength, the research suggests, the stronger you are.