"This is just the way things are." You've heard this phrase before no doubt, likely in the context of a team meeting or planning session, when the conversation reaches a point of stalemate. There are few things a person can say that shut down possibilities more than "This is just the way things are." In my experience, people resort to this phrase out of fear of change, comfort with the status quo, or lack of imagination.
Why is this so detrimental?
The reason this phrase is so damaging is the effect it has on the culture of a team. Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, by which he meant that the intangible, unspoken, ambient rules of an organization or system bear more power in directing that system than do the explicit and overt efforts of people (even leadership) to direct that system toward desired outcomes. At Haimish, we've tried to take this one step further: more than "culture eats strategy for breakfast," we say that culture is strategy. So when an employee, team, or leader says "this is just the way things are", they are deploying a cultural statement as a strategic influence. A person might use the phrase "this is just the way things are" as a description of the cultural ethos of a system, but the phrase becomes prescriptive as it shapes the culture toward stagnation. This little phrase, and others like it, bear incredible detrimental power in the life of an organization.
How can you help?
So how can you make a difference when this phrase comes up? At Haimish, we believe deeply in the powers of empathy and curiosity to generate change. As a first step, when you hear someone acquiesce to the "way things are", take a moment to imagine what feeling of theirs is leading them to resign themselves to the status quo: are they fearful of change? are they needing a boost of imagination? are they served in some way by the status quo and need to see things from another's perspective? Taking a moment to empathize with their motivation will give you direction for the next step: a question from curiosity. If you sense that your colleague is motivated by fear of change, ask a curious question like "I totally hear you. What do you think might be the downsides for your team if we tried things differently?" If you sense that your colleague is motivated by comfort with the status quo, ask a curious question like "I can totally see that. What are some drawbacks you can imagine for other people or teams if we continue to do things this way?" The strategy here is to seek to understand your colleague, and then ask a question that helps them understand you and others. From there, you can help to guide them into new imagination, new possibilities, and new ways of doing things.
And look forward to the day when "this is just the way things are" gives way to "imagine all the ways things could be."
Need support in understanding and shaping the culture of your team? We'd love to help, it's what we do.