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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Risks of challenging the status quo



Provocation will generate powerful reactions. If the need is unclear and the change logic doesn’t suit others, you will feel their reactions. People will become indignant and outraged as you ask hard questions or offer insightful observations. Challenging the deeply held beliefs and values of your own people is a risky business.

Trying to make a difference in your business or for your immediate community is a worthy endeavor. Still, the pushback felt when you put the broader traditions under the microscope can be challenging. If you provoke others, you should prepare for pushback.

The past few years have had a significant impact on all our lives. While different in detail, our experience in Australia is like other parts of the world. Following devastating bushfires, widespread floods, the murder of a woman and her two children by her husband, the results of Royal Commissions on child abuse and neglect in aged care, we all had to make significant adjustments to the global Covid-19 pandemic. In the United States, the government’s heartland was under siege in January 2021, while the country was still reeling from protests following the killing of George Floyd. And now in 2022 the terrible invasion and destruction in Ukraine. At times, it feels as if we can’t bear it anymore. In the global context of increased volatility and stress, you should question whether people can tolerate any more disturbance. Even though the problem you face is worthy, it is riskier to provoke others during such times. There is also an ethical question to consider. If you know that the broader context already unsettles those involved, is it right to provoke them further?

Our colleague Marty Linsky often says, “To lead is to live dangerously.” He reminds us that questioning the status quo can lead to distress and opposition. No one will thank you, at least initially, if you unsettle their lives, push them to make complex adjustments, and give up what was comfortable. Most adaptive problems are difficult because those involved don’t know how to solve them without the demanding process of changing attitudes, values, and behaviors. Consequently, making change is fraught with hazards. First, there are tactical risks, such as determining when and how to intervene or how much pressure to apply. There are also strategic risks related to the impact of your actions on other people and their responses to you. Then there are the more personal risks. There is a real danger of personal attack and abuse; there are risks that you can let the power of provocative situations go to your head, becoming besotted by your own prowess and the risk you can start believing in your own rhetoric and power. You can think your provocative action is who you are, confusing the role you have chosen to adopt in this situation with your own identity.


Published in the Deal, The Australian. 19 December 2022

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