The Negotiator Magazine

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The Status-Quo Trap

We instinctively stay with what seems familiar. Thus we look for decisions that involve the least change. For example, when radically new products are introduced they are made to look like an existing and familiar product. The first cars looked like horse-less carriages. The first online newspapers and magazines had formats much like their print counterparts. To protect our egos from damage we avoid acting to change the status quo, even in the face of early warnings that demonstrate that change will be safer. We look for reasons to do nothing.

For example, in one experiment, a group of people were randomly given one of two gifts of approximately the same value: half received a mug, the other half got a large, Swiss chocolate bar. They were told that they could easily exchange the gift they received for the other gift. While you might expect that about half would have wanted to make the exchange, only one in ten actually did. The power of status quo kicked in within minutes of receiving an object. Other experiments have shown that the more choices you are given, the more pull the status quo has. Why? Because more choices involve more effort while selecting the status quo avoids that effort.

In business, the sins of commission (doing something) tend to be punished much more severely than sins of omission (doing nothing). In all parts of life, people want to avoid rocking the boat.

What can you do? Think of your goals first, when preparing to make a decision, then review how they are served by the status quo as compared by a change. Look at each possible change, one at a time, so as to not overwhelm yourself and then instinctively you will want to "stay safe" and unchanged.

Never think of the status quo as your only alternative. Ask yourself whether you would choose the status quo, if, in fact, it weren't the status quo.

Avoid the natural tendency of exaggerating the effort or cost or emotional reaction of others or for yourself if you change from the status quo.

Remember that the desirability of the status quo may change over time. When considering a change, look at possible future situations. If you have several alternatives that are superior to the status quo, avoid the natural tendency to fall back upon the status quo because you are having a hard time choosing between the other alternatives.

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January 2005