How to Challenge the Status Quo (Pt. 1)

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior tackle a common organizational-wide dilemma, how do you effectively challenge the status quo? Questioning the prevailing mindset is tricky business. While innovation requires deviation from the norm, pushing for change often feels like a personal confrontation rather than an objective debate. So in this episode, Tim and Junior will provide concrete actual advice for skillfully and safely challenging the status quo, whether you lack formal authority or you find yourself at odds with the entrenched stakeholders.

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Episode Show Notes

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior tackle a common organizational-wide dilemma, how do you effectively challenge the status quo? Questioning the prevailing mindset is tricky business. While innovation requires deviation from the norm, pushing for change often feels like a personal confrontation rather than an objective debate. So in this episode, Tim and Junior will provide concrete actual advice for skillfully and safely challenging the status quo, whether you lack formal authority or you find yourself at odds with the entrenched stakeholders.

Key Points
  1. Anticipate the opportunity (20:45) Very few organizations have open-mic, challenge-the-status quo forums, so expect to do so in the context of your natural workflow. It may be an informal opportunity that allows you to introduce your idea.
  2. Ask for permission (25:26) You may use a question like: Do you mind if I offer a different perspective? Or, may I suggest an alternative way to look at this? This allows you to position your interaction as a contribution rather than a confrontation.
  3. Begin with inquiry, not advocacy (30:05) Challenging the status quo often evokes defensiveness. Rather than advocating a position that might divide, exclude, or marginalize, disarm with questions that recruit others into dialogue.
  4. Model emotional intelligence (35:54) Paradoxically, the challenger must often create psychological safety for the challenged, giving them space to acknowledge and come to terms with needed change. Let your emotional intelligence be your guide.
  5. Demonstrate a grasp of the past (40:41) Demonstrate contextual understanding by acquiring a thorough knowledge of previous decisions and how the status quo came to be. Become a master of the current state.
Read Dr. Clark's HBR Article
How to Challenge the Status Quo Productively

Episode Transcript


0:00:02.6 Freddy: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddy, one of the producers of the podcast. Today's episode, Tim and Junior tackle a common organizational-wide dilemma, how do you effectively challenge the status quo? Questioning the prevailing mindset is tricky business. While innovation requires deviation from the norm, pushing for change often feels like a personal confrontation rather than an objective debate. So in this episode, Tim and Junior will provide concrete actual advice for skillfully and safely challenging the status quo, whether you lack formal authority or you find yourself at odds with the entrenched stakeholders. Their guidance includes tips like anticipating opportunities for input, leading with inquiry instead of advocacy, demonstrating the grasp of context, and modeling emotional intelligence.

0:00:55.4 Freddy: This episode is based off Tim's most recent Harvard Business Review article, and is part of a two-part series with 10 effective ways to challenge the status quo. In today's episode, Tim and Junior will present the first five, so stick around next week for part two and the remaining five ways to challenge the status quo effectively. As always, you can find links to this episode's show notes, including a link to the HBR article at Thanks again for listening. Thank you for your reviews. And enjoy today's episode on How Do You Effectively Challenge the Status Quo, Part One.


0:01:37.3 Junior: Welcome back everyone, to Culture by Design. My name is Junior. I'm here with my co-host, Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be discussing how to challenge the status quo. Tim, how are you doing?

0:01:47.5 Tim: I'm doing great, and I'm very excited about this conversation.

0:01:52.0 Junior: This is an interesting one. We haven't done this before. We've talked about the other side. We've talked a lot about creating an environment conducive to challenging the status quo. And we've talked a lot about being on the receiving end of a challenge. But what if you're the one doing the challenging? It's personal. It's emotional. It's hard. So we've dedicated this and the next episode to answering the question, how do you challenge the status quo? So we've put together 10 practical tips, five we'll share today and five we'll share next week. So let's set things up. Tim, you begin this by talking about the idea that innovation requires deviation, so tell me about that.

0:02:38.7 Tim: Well, think about the status quo, and then think about changing it. What does it take to change the status quo? It takes a thought about changing some aspect of the status quo. Now, it could be that your thought is to change something very small, something very slight, or it could be more major, it could be something that's radical or transformative. Either way, whenever we change the status quo, that innovation requires deviation and it requires it 100% at the time. Even if it's a slight change to the status quo, it's still a deviation from the way you're doing it. So I think that's the premise of the argument. That's the premise of the entire applied discipline of challenging the status quo. That innovation requires deviation always, not once in a while, not frequently, not maybe most of the time, all of the time. That's our starting point.

0:03:41.2 Junior: And then it's necessarily true that without deviation, there is no innovation. And it's probably true that those things are somewhat correlated. The more deviation you have, maybe the more raw material for innovation you have. If you have very little deviation, it's likely that you'll have very little innovation. So without innovation, what happens? There's no progress. There's no useful change. So for humanity, what does that mean? It means that things don't get better in a very general sense. We're in stasis. We are stuck there...

0:04:17.1 Tim: Yeah.

0:04:17.3 Junior: Indefinitely until something's shaken up, until there's deviation. Now, deviation isn't inherently valuable. Now, that's something to point out. So not all constructive dissent, or not all dissent is constructive. Sometimes it's just change for change's sake, or sometimes it's actually negative. So we have to acknowledge that. But for organizations, if there's no innovation, no useful progress, what happens is they'll live much shorter lives and they'll do that with unhappier people. Because as humans, we have a fundamental human need to contribute to the status quo and change the status quo to make sure that things get better over time, right?

0:05:03.0 Tim: That's true. And for every time we make any kind of a change, there's some small dose of constructive dissent that preceded that. I wanna point out, Junior, that when you think about the status quo, and you think about the fact that the status quo becomes entrenched, it becomes calcified, it becomes fossilized, and it's hard to change, it's actually not the status quo. It's the people. It's the people behind the status quo. It's not the status quo. Think about an organization. Think about, okay, let's say we wanna change systems, or processes, or structure, or roles, or responsibilities, or policies, or procedures, or technology. Think about all the things that we change when we say, "Oh, we're going to change the status quo. We're going to upend the way that we do things." Well, those things are just configurable parts that we've put in place. Those things don't fossilize and get territorial and push back. It's the humans that do that. It's the humans that stand in the way. So we have to distinguish between the things that we've put in place that represent the status quo, and the people that did that. Where is the challenge? It's with the people.

0:06:34.7 Junior: Yeah. It's with the people.

0:06:36.0 Tim: Yeah. That's where people become deeply attached to what they have, they've put in place. And so when we think about challenging the status quo, we are threatening... I mean, what does it mean to threaten the edifice? It means to threaten those who built and sustain the edifice. That's why this is hard.

0:07:00.1 Junior: Well, and it's the answer to the question, if innovation requires deviation, then why don't we get more deviation? Because people. Because we're threatening the edifice. Now, there's another point that I wanna call out here, which is this human point that without innovation, things don't get better for people. And that's true on a micro level, and it's true on a macro level. It's true at the level of humanity as a species. Things will not get better for us unless things change. And so, what does that mean for each of us? It means that... Well, I've talked to a lot of people who have an aspiration to make a meaningful difference, to leave a dent, to make the world a better place. It's a worthy aspiration, but what does that mean in practical terms? Can you leave a dent? I like that terminology because it implies a change. If you're gonna dent something, you necessarily change it. So, what does it mean to change it? It means that there must be deviation. And if that deviation happens at the human level, then what does deviation really mean? It means that you say something.

0:08:26.1 Tim: Yeah.

0:08:27.4 Junior: So if you wanna make the world a better place, it will probably boil down over time to you being willing to say something. That to me is a really interesting point. Now, you can't just say something and make everything change. There's skill associated with saying something, and that's what we're going to be talking about today. The more effective you can become in the act of saying something, in the act of constructive dissent, the more likely you will be to uproot the status quo, and maybe uproot's too strong, but maybe bend it, move it in a slightly different direction so that things are better.

0:09:07.8 Tim: Yeah.

0:09:08.5 Junior: And then that trickles down and affects the whole system. You make the world a better place by saying something the right way in an effort to change the status quo.

0:09:18.0 Tim: I think that's right. Well, Junior, you made a... When we were talking about this before, you made a point about, how do you wanna live your life? I think you should share the way you put it. Can you just frame that the way you framed it when we were talking earlier?

0:09:32.4 Junior: What did I say? I don't remember.

0:09:34.0 Tim: Just about, do you wanna live a shorter life with unhappier people, or the opposite?

0:09:41.5 Junior: Yeah. As an organization you have a life span, right?

0:09:44.8 Tim: Yeah.

0:09:44.9 Junior: And it's fixed. You're not gonna live forever. You look at the organizations that have gone through time and they start and they end. And that life span can be short or long, depending on a number of things, but our aspiration would be to have a long life span and have that life span be full of happy people that are working towards a meaningful goal. But what often happens if we don't get the type of deviation we need, we live shorter lives and people are unhappier because they don't have the opportunity or maybe the skills to change the status quo.

0:10:22.7 Tim: Yeah.

0:10:22.9 Junior: And so, our hope in this episode is to provide, and next week's episode, to provide everyone with 10 very practical things that each of us can do to do that more effectively, so that organizations can escape some of that pathology that plagues them and move towards something that's healthier, that's more sustainable, and it's more likely to make a meaningful difference in the world.

0:10:50.0 Tim: Right.

0:10:50.9 Junior: So let's jump into those five. Well, before we do that, let's make one more point. Let's talk a little bit about the edifice. I think we should spend a little bit more time here before we get into the behaviors.

0:11:06.1 Tim: The edifice. Yes.

0:11:07.9 Junior: Yeah. You mentioned threatening the edifice, threatens those who built and sustain the edifice. So what does that mean? There's ego. There's a whole bunch of stuff in that. Tell me more.

0:11:20.2 Tim: Well, as I said, it's not just about data and logic. And I think that that is such a critical point here. If it were just about data and logic, then you bring your unimpeachable data and your sound logic, and we're all going to nod our heads and say, "Fantastic, that's great, let's go change the status quo." That's not how it works. It's not simply about data and logic. We're talking about if you challenge the status quo gets personal. Well, what does that mean? It means that at a personal or organizational level, you're trying to dislodge what has often become a deeply entrenched paradigm. That's what you're trying to do. And even if what you're saying is not earth-shattering, you're often calling for the destruction of dogma, the abolition of a mindset, the transfer of an allegiance. Well, what does that have to do with... Why can't that just be about data and logic? Well, because we're human, and so it becomes more emotional and political than rational. That's why this behavior, the skill of challenging the status quo is complex, and it's nuanced, and it is deeply human. Right? So yes, bring your data, yes, bring your logic, but now you're telling me, "Oh, this could become more emotional and political than rational"?

0:13:00.0 Junior: Yeah.

0:13:00.6 Tim: The answer is, yes. Are you prepared for that? That's what we're talking about. And we're also talking about, as part of that, the personal nature of this, that you could be challenging another person's reputation and sense of themselves. How often Junior, do we get bound up in the status quo and the status quo becomes an extension of who we are? It's interwoven into our identity. And so if someone challenges the status quo, they're challenging us, so we get defensive and territorial.

0:13:35.9 Junior: We probably all felt that if someone has challenged something that we built or helped build. You're like, "Oh, that hurts a little, or a lot," depending on the situation. And even when you know that they're being pragmatic and as objective as they can be about the situation, you still get emotional about it. You still feel a little bit of an attack. And I think that that's true for each of us. I think that we've probably all felt that at one point or another. And we've probably also been on the flip side where we're challenging and we may have hurt somebody else's feelings because they built the status quo.

0:14:16.5 Tim: Yeah.

0:14:17.2 Junior: Or maybe they're just in charge of the status quo that someone else built, but that's their job, and so they're interested in the act of preservation, and so they get territorial about it. You can see how human a process this is, and how non-mechanical it is, and yet, if you ask a whole bunch of people, "Okay, your job is to go into this meeting and convince everyone in this room that this direction A is the right direction to go, how are you gonna prepare?" And the person would probably say, "Well, I'm gonna present the argument, 'Clearly, I brought all of this data. I've checked all of my references. I've double-checked over here, all of my due diligence is good.'" And that's how they would spend their time and characterize the way that they would go into the meeting, right?

0:15:10.8 Junior: How many people would say, in answer to that question, "Well, I'm going to do the things that we're gonna talk about today, which are all very human things"? Probably not very many people. And I know that I've certainly been guilty of that. "Hey, if I just make the case rationally, everything will just fall in line because it's obvious." Right? If you follow the train of logic, you see that this is the way to go. And more than once, I've gone into a meeting that way and been terribly surprised, although I should not have been, at the outcome. "Wow, that did not go the way that I expected it to go." I guess that's because humans were in the meeting, right?

0:15:52.2 Tim: Well, maybe a way to visually portray this Junior, is with concentric circles. In the middle, put your logic and your data. And you need to make a case based on logic and data. That's very important. But then add another circle to the inner circle, and in that area, what are we going to do? We're gonna call into play context, personalities, self-interest. Okay, now it gets much more interesting, right? So we have data and logic wrapped with context and personalities and self-interest. And so, Junior, as I was reflecting on this skill to be able to challenge the status quo, I thought about different ideas or challenges that I've been familiar with just in recent days as we've been working with client organizations, let me give you some examples of what we're talking about when we say challenge the status quo.

0:16:58.5 Tim: Now, of course, as we said at the outset, it could be radical, it could be slight. It could be something big, it could be something little. But hopefully you're paying attention to what's going on in your organization or on your team, and hopefully you're looking for opportunities to improve. Hopefully, you're taking issue with some things. Hopefully, you're coming to a point of view on the way you do things and how you could do them better. Here are some examples. How do you convince marketing that they're wasting ad spend on poor messaging? You're just gonna go in there with data and logic? I don't think so.

0:17:42.2 Junior: You could try...

0:17:43.2 Tim: That's gonna be part of it.

0:17:44.3 Junior: And then you can tell us what happens.

0:17:47.5 Tim: Yeah. [laughter] How do you challenge finance to relax the hurdle rate for smaller capital budget requests? I remember doing this very thing when I worked in manufacturing. How do you inform your division that the current onboarding process for new hires is tedious and ineffective? I went through that kind of onboarding process that was tedious and ineffective. I experienced it myself. Hello? Would anybody like any feedback here? How do you let HR know that you see systemic gender bias in the promotion of production managers? I lived through that. How do you raise a concern about the potential unintended consequences of a new product launch? "Hey, you're not thinking about this." "Hey, you're not thinking that this is probably going to cannibalize this other product." Hello? So, what do you do? You just go shine the light of logic and data and everybody says, "Oh yeah, you're so right." That's never how it's worked for me. So those are just some examples. Now, let's add one more layer of complexity to it. What if you have, Junior, in all of this, you have no positional power?

0:19:06.0 Tim: What if you are new to the organization? These are additional complications that I'm introducing now. What if you want to challenge something that's not in your area of expertise, and you're in a very siloed organization where everyone says, "You just stay in your lane, man"? What if you're a member of an underrepresented or marginalized group? What does that do to your perception of the risk of challenging the status quo, your reputation, your chances for advancement? So we've added a lot to just data and logic, haven't we?

0:19:50.8 Junior: A lot. [laughter] A lot. And we've talked in the past, "Okay, here's what we can do to decrease the perception of risk for those giving the feedback," but if you're the one in the hot seat and it's incumbent upon you to say something, how do you decrease your risk regardless of what's going on in the environment?

0:20:11.7 Tim: Yeah.

0:20:12.1 Junior: That's what we're gonna talk about.

0:20:12.7 Junior: Yeah. So that's the setup.

0:20:14.6 Junior: That's the setup. And I think that that's adequate setup.

0:20:16.6 Tim: Okay.

0:20:19.1 Junior: I think we've painted the picture.

0:20:19.5 Tim: Okay.

0:20:20.1 Junior: And a lot of that setup boils down to this point. Challenging the status quo requires not just courage but skill. So it must be true that you summon the courage to raise your hand, but it must also be true, in order to have the highest chance of success, that you're skilled in the way that you deliver that feedback. So...

0:20:45.0 Freddy: Yes.

0:20:45.4 Junior: There are 10 concrete steps to build that skill, to mitigate the risk, to increase the chance of your success, and we're going to go through five of those today and we hope that these will be very helpful. The first is anticipate the opportunity. Anticipate the opportunity. There are very few instances in which the organization will have an open mic, challenge the status quo forum, a formal invitation to you to show up and say what you have to say. So if that's the exception, then what's the rule? That you will have to give that feedback in the context of natural workflow, that while you're doing things in normal work, you will have to give that feedback, right? So it's very different than standing at the front of the room with a presentation and saying, "Okay, everyone, I have something to say. Here is what I have to say." And you go around the room and answer questions and that's it. You close up your slideshow and you sit down. That's not how this is gonna go, is it?

0:21:52.4 Tim: So what you're saying, Junior, is that don't expect to stand in front of a bunch of venture capitalists with a pitch deck?

0:22:00.7 Junior: Right. That's precisely it.


0:22:03.6 Tim: It's not gonna be that way.

0:22:05.2 Junior: No, it's not. And to your earlier point, the lower your seat in the hierarchy, the more difficult this might be and the tighter the case you might have to bring. And so I think that it's important to underscore the fact that you do need to bring a case so that when that opportunity does arise, you have something meaningful and coherent to say.

0:22:31.5 Tim: That's right.

0:22:31.9 Junior: But the odds are that that opportunity will be an informal opportunity or a chance encounter that allows you to raise your hand and say something. You, never know who's going to be in the room. You never know what the situation is going to be like and when that opportunity might come, so you have to be on the lookout. So what does this mean in practical terms? This means that you might have something to say, but the time to say it might not be right now because there's no real opportunity.

0:23:03.8 Junior: So you keep that tucked away, you have it in your back pocket, and you keep your eyes open waiting for the appropriate opportunity. Now, that opportunity is going to look very different depending on your situation, depending on your context. Maybe it's a certain person that you need time with, or maybe it's a certain lull in work going on that you can take advantage of. Maybe it's right coming back from a weekend. Maybe it's going into a weekend. Maybe, for whatever reason, it's this specific time. So think about the context of your own work that surrounds the piece of feedback that you want to give, and then anticipate that opportunity so that when it comes, you can identify it and then take advantage of it.

0:23:50.0 Tim: Maybe it's when there's a problem that creates this natural sense of urgency that wasn't there before.

0:23:56.2 Junior: Yeah.

0:23:57.2 Tim: And you know that no one would listen to you before, but they will listen to you now because there's been a problem.

0:24:05.6 Junior: Or maybe it's precisely the opposite. And we have to wait until there's no problem, so that we have a little bit more time and space, right? So...

0:24:14.6 Tim: Yeah.

0:24:16.0 Junior: Depending on the nature of the feedback, one of those might be true.

0:24:20.4 Tim: That's very true. So there's no formula to this, but it's the principle of preparing, anticipating the opportunity. You have to read the room. You have to interpret the context. You have to know when the time is right and when the audience is right, and when that opportunity is placed before you. So get ready. Anticipate the opportunity. It will come. And we're not talking about one thing. We're talking about perhaps several different ideas or issues for which you have feedback, for which you'd like to challenge the status quo, as we said before, whether it's radical or slight, could be something little.

0:25:08.6 Junior: There are a lot of variables. You've got who, what, where, when. You gotta pay attention to all of those, make sure that those are in a row to give that feedback. Now, you may not have the perfect opportunity, so you don't wanna wait forever, but you do wanna be thoughtful about the timing.

0:25:26.1 Tim: Yeah.

0:25:26.6 Junior: Okay. Number two, ask for permission. So when it comes to giving feedback, especially when it's challenging the status quo, people are often unsure of their participation rights. "Am I actually invited to give feedback here? Is it okay? Is it not okay? Should I not say anything?" So explicitly asking for permission to challenge helps diffuse all of that on the front end. So you might say something like, "May I have your permission to push back on this?" or "Do you mind if I offer a different perspective?" "Could I suggest an alternative way to look at this?" Those are three ways that you could ask for permission. Why would we do this, Tim? Why should you ask for permission? What does that do?

0:26:17.6 Tim: Well, I think you said it before, Junior. People, they're not sure if they have permission rights. That is not sure. Now, you might come back and say, "Well, hang on a second. Everybody should know that they can give feedback. They have a license to disagree. We have a norm that says there's an obligation of dissent. How rare is that?" That is the exception. That's not the rule. If you go interview just a broad section of employees and you ask them, "Do you feel that you have the participation rights to challenge the status quo, to weigh in on an issue, to register a contrary point of view?" a lot of them, they live in a state of uncertainty and ambiguity when it comes to that. They don't know. That's not something that a lot of organizations or leaders make clear that are... They're explicit about saying, "Yes, please, this is always gonna be the case that you have irrevocable participation rights."

0:27:26.2 Tim: No. I would dare say that most people don't feel that way. And so what this does is it not only clarifies it for them if they get a positive response, but if someone with positional power gives you the, okay, "Yes, please, you have permission," "Yeah, I'd love to hear from you. What is your point of view?" And you have the okay to challenge the status quo. You are trading your personal risk for institutional permission. What does that do? Well, it gives you the permission that you need. It puts you much more at ease because this is a highly vulnerable behavior. Number two, it also gives those in charge this feeling of assurance that they retain control because you've asked them for permission.

0:28:18.7 Tim: So you are giving them deference, you're respecting the chain of command and they say, "Sure, yeah." So that's what it does for them and this allows you to position your interaction. Think about this. Think about this dichotomy. This allows you to position your interaction and your challenge as a contribution rather than a confrontation. That's a big difference. If people can take your challenge as a contribution, not a confrontation, you've got a much better chance of being heard and understood and taken seriously. And so that's what asking for permission can do.

0:29:05.8 Junior: Now, I would say on this point that asking for permission is always advisable. So even if you live in the exceptional scenario in which participation rights in challenging the status quo is the rule, still ask for permission.

0:29:22.7 Tim: Yeah, still.

0:29:23.5 Junior: What harm does it do?

0:29:24.6 Tim: Still.

0:29:25.3 Junior: And so I think that that's a helpful way to look at setting up any feedback-giving is asking for permission. I found this to be personally useful for a long time. It was like a magic trick almost in asking for permission giving feedback, especially if you're having a difficult conversation. Because it's true on the individual level too. You're trading your personal risk, not necessarily for institutional permission, but personal permission from the other person to say what you have to say. And regardless of what happens from that point on, you can always lean on the fact, and they have to lean on the fact that, "Well, I did say yes," right?

0:30:02.6 Tim: Yeah, that's right.

0:30:03.8 Junior: That you invited this, right?

0:30:05.1 Tim: Yeah.

0:30:05.6 Junior: Okay. So that's number two, ask for permission. Number three, begin with inquiry, not advocacy. Why? Challenging the status quo evokes defensiveness almost every time. So we're combatting that every time we give feedback. So in order to neutralize that response or do our best to neutralize it, we need to begin the giving of that feedback with inquiry, asking questions, not advocating for our position. We wanna make it a dialogue. We wanna make it conversational back and forth. Because we could, and often we do, launch into advocating with a position that, "Hey, it might be divisive, it might be exclusive, it might marginalize, it might disarm unintentionally from questions that would recruit other people into the conversation." So this is a dangerous one if we get this wrong. If you do the opposite and you start with advocacy, very rarely will the conversation go well.

0:31:14.0 Tim: Right. Well, to your point, Junior, just flip it around and do it in the opposite order. So think about what happens if you start with advocacy, not inquiry. You set people back on their heels. You may move them into a defensive routine. And so then what are they doing? So the emotions begin to run high. They start to get defensive. Remember, what did we talk about? We talked about that this is data and logic wrapped in personality, wrapped in context, wrapped in self-interest. And so if you begin with advocacy, all of that can come out, the defensiveness, the territorial behavior, taking things personally, feeling challenged personally. That's not the way you wanna start. You want to start with the rational basis of the argument and you catalyze that with a question, with inquiry, and you recruit people into that process. It's now a dialogue. We're collaborating. We're thinking together. You are demonstrating curiosity. You're not taking anyone on personally, right? It's not a confrontation. So the power of beginning with inquiry versus advocacy can't be overstated.

0:32:49.1 Junior: Yeah, I agree. Probably because advocacy's my MO. That's easy for me to go into a situation and start advocating. And what I've found is that that's often not useful and that inquiry is the only way to draw people out. And I think set people back on their heels is the right way to frame that if you launch in with advocacy, the defensive nature of the entire conversation from that point on. And so instead, we can ask something like, "If we don't change anything, what will happen?" or "Help me understand how you arrived here. Help me understand your point of view." And if you do that in an effort to understand, what happens to the other person's posture? Are they back on their heels? No, they're leaning forward because they're anxious to explain how they arrived there, right?

0:33:41.3 Tim: Yeah.

0:33:41.7 Junior: "Oh, well, it was because of this and this and this." And two things will happen at that point. Either, one, you'll change your point of view because you see how they got to theirs, or two, we can now have an open dialogue. "Oh, I see how you arrived there. Have you considered this?" "Oh yeah, we did. And we ran that train of thought out and this is where we ended." "Oh, okay, that makes sense." Or "No, we hadn't considered that before. Do you have an idea as it relates to that?" "Yes, I do. What if we did this, and so on and so forth? And now, what are we doing? It's not a personal attack. We're debating the idea. Does the idea have merit? Does some other idea have merit? It's not you versus me. It's this idea and this idea and we're coming at it from different perspectives. We're working together to try and find the best solution." So this one is incredibly important. Begin with inquiry, not advocacy. Anything else here, Tim?

0:34:35.1 Tim: Yeah. Just to summarize, as you said, and you just explained it really well, good inquiry engages the intellect. And the order of operations when you challenge the status quo is to engage the intellect first, not the emotions. If you get that backwards, you're in trouble right from the beginning. So engage the intellect and reduce the chance of emotional escalation. And then hopefully if you do an effective job beginning with inquiry, then the emotional response will be one that is collaborative and appreciative and is joining you in the process of discovery. You're doing discovery together. And then advocacy will come out of that group process. This is a little counterintuitive because we started with the idea that we're challenging the status quo. Well, hang on a second. How can I challenge the status quo and begin with inquiry? But you can, right? You wanna draw out people's understanding and their points of view and their emotional states. So this one is absolutely crucial.

0:35:54.4 Junior: It is. Okay, let's move to number four, model emotional intelligence. So there's a little paradox here. The challenger must often create psychological safety for the challenged. You need to give them space to acknowledge and come to terms with what you're bringing to the table. Because you're coming and you're saying, "Hey, you know, this, we might need to do this. This needs to change." And in order to do that effectively, we have to have superb emotional intelligence. So, what does this include? We just finished a series on EQ, which was very enjoyable, by the way. And emotional intelligence includes a self-awareness to inform your own behavior. You're paying really close attention as you're engaged in this dialogue to not just what the other person is saying back to you, but all of the non-verbal cues. So think about the last time that you challenged someone. How much were they saying non-verbally?

0:37:02.2 Junior: Probably a whole lot. And you could tell how it was going within five seconds of starting the conversation, right? As soon as they noticed where you were headed, they probably started reacting non-verbally to those cues. And what did you do in return? Did you just carry on? Or did you adjust the approach? Did you start doing the dance or not? Because this one, to me, is the difference between being a sharp or a blunt instrument. If you just go in with brute force, and again, it may come from a really pragmatic place, which is not bad...

0:37:37.4 Tim: You could even be right.

0:37:39.0 Junior: Oh yeah. Probably you are, right? Probably you're right.

0:37:44.2 Tim: Yeah.

0:37:45.1 Junior: But if you're too blunt and you come in and you do not self-monitor and you're not looking at the other person's non-verbals and you're not being emotionally intelligent, it's probably not going to go very well, right?

0:37:58.5 Tim: Mm-hmm. It reminds me, Junior, of when I worked in manufacturing and we used to train on physical safety all the time, that's so important in a physical plant environment. And one of the principles that you use is called, or we call it present moment thinking. That may have been the old way to talk about mindfulness to a certain extent, but present moment thinking that you are in the moment, you're paying attention. Paying attention means two things, and these are companion competencies and emotional intelligence. Paying attention, present moment thinking means self-awareness and social awareness. You're aware of your verbal and non-verbal communication, A, and B, you're aware of the impact of your verbal and non-verbal communication on others.

0:38:55.6 Tim: How are you aware of that? You're aware of that by the way that they are responding to you, both verbally and non-verbally. So to demonstrate a high level of both self-awareness and social awareness in the moment, this is the essence of modeling emotional intelligence when you're challenging the status quo. You've gotta monitor this real-time and you've got to be able to adjust and shift and adapt based on how people are responding back to you, right? There are streams of data that are coming back to you. You've gotta process that, use that, and adjust based on that.

0:39:41.3 Junior: It's such a skill, because when you go into that conversation, you wanna do so with poise, with high humility, with sincerity, understanding that respect diffuses defensiveness. And maybe the conversations get intense. Maybe you need to diffuse that with some humor, right? Knowing when to do that is a skill.

0:40:05.0 Tim: Yeah.

0:40:08.1 Junior: It's an absolute skill. The whole thing's a dance, right?

0:40:10.9 Tim: It is. It is. And it's learnable. It's a learnable skill. If you're willing to pay attention to really focus on the interpersonal dynamics, you can get better. So I think that that's the good news and hopefully that gives everyone confidence that you can do better with this. You can learn how to raise a sensitive topic and do it with emotional intelligence.

0:40:41.1 Junior: We have to remember that a huge piece of emotional intelligence as we see it is the intent that we bring to the interaction. And people feel that. And if you can do that appropriately in the act of challenging, you'll be much better off. If the person across from you feels that you have really pure, healthy intent, that you want what's best, they'll respond to that. If they don't feel empathy, if they don't feel the regard coming from you, they will be much less receptive, all else equal, much less. 'Cause they can tell. We can all tell. Number five, demonstrate a grasp of the past. You have a quote in here from GK Chesterton from his book, "The Thing", which I think I love and it's so appropriate for this one. So he introduces a situation in which a fence has been built across a road. And this person, a very eager reformer comes along to challenge the status quo, in this case, the fence.

0:41:54.7 Junior: Here's a quote, "I don't see the use of this. Let us clear it away." To which someone representing the status quo, the fence, responds, "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think, then when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." Unpack that for me.

0:42:20.6 Tim: Yeah, I think the lesson, Junior, is, it's a simple lesson but it's often overlooked and that is if you want to challenge the status quo, grasp the past. Demonstrate a grasp of the past. What does that mean? It means show that you have contextual understanding. And how do you do that? You've gotta acquire a thorough knowledge of previous decisions and how the status quo came to be. That's your job. That burden is on you. So people want to know, if you're holding court on the status quo, people need the reassurance that you have done your homework and that you understand how that status quo came to be, the decisions that put it in place, the rationale for having the fence across the road.

0:43:09.8 Tim: You wanna take that fence away? You wanna tear that down? First, demonstrate to me that you understand why it was put there in the first place. Because it was put there for a reason. So give us the benefit of having done your homework, having thought through it. This is crucial. It's crucial for two reasons, and it goes back to the intellectual and the emotional. The intellectual is, what is the rationale? What is the business case? Do you understand the decisions that brought us here? And then the emotional side is giving appropriate deference to the past, and to the efforts of the past, and the accomplishments of the past. The status quo represents, to some extent, to a certain extent, success. If we didn't have an organization today, that would be one thing, but the fact that we have a status quo is a testimony to the success of the past. And we need to acknowledge that. So we need to give proper deference and proper respect to that past and the people that put the status quo in place. That's what this is all about.

0:44:26.2 Junior: This one really stands out to me, and I think it's inextricably linked to inquiry first, advocacy second. Because when you begin with inquiry, that helps you get a grasp of the past. You're asking, "How did we get here?" If you launch into advocacy, you may miss something. You may be ignorant to a crucial piece of knowledge, something from the past that resulted in the current status quo. That's a simple answer as to why it is the way that it is, or why we can't do what you're proposing or whatever else. And the last thing that you want to do is launch into advocacy for 10 minutes, only to find out that there's a crucial piece of knowledge that makes everything you just said for 10 minutes irrelevant. And you could avoid that by starting with some inquiry. And I think this aura of respect that accompanies this idea of demonstrating a grasp of the past is very important. And you'll feel this if anyone has ever done this to you and they've tried to demonstrate a grasp of the past.

0:45:39.4 Junior: And what they're essentially saying is, I appreciate what you've done and your efforts to get us here. That acknowledgement of someone's contribution is so helpful in then segueing into, but I think that there's one thing that we might do differently. Or I have a question here. How much more likely are they to be receptive to that feedback after they've just been told, "Thank you"? Much more. Much more. But if you blatantly disregard everything that has come before, you'll be looked at as ignorant and naive. And those are two things that you do not want to have associated with you, especially as it pertains to your own credibility when you're bringing something to the table. Right?

0:46:26.7 Tim: I agree with that, Junior. There's a real irony associated with the approach of going in with guns a-blazing. Because if you take that approach, what you're doing is you're going in with this sense of assurity, confidence. You're being rigid, you're being authoritative, and yet you're challenging this status quo and you're asking people not to do that, not to be rigid, not to be closed-minded. You're asking them to be open to your point of view, but you're being dogmatic. Do you see the irony in that?

0:47:14.2 Junior: Yeah.

0:47:14.9 Tim: You make a very good point and that is that you can't go in... You may think that you have a grasp, but you may be missing something. And so often there are things that you're still in learning mode, even though you think you've come to a pretty strong point of view. And you think you're ready to challenge the status quo, but you miss some things. And when you're enlightened... If you've been arrogant and you're enlightened, you feel humiliated. But if you have been humble and then enlightened, you are in a state of appreciation, not humiliation. That's the difference.

0:47:55.5 Junior: And other people's orientation towards you is different, too. And they'll be much more likely to hear you out.

0:48:03.3 Tim: That's right.

0:48:05.3 Junior: Okay. So innovation requires deviation. Without deviation, there's no innovation. But we don't get a lot of deviation because it's so personal. Because it's emotional. Because we're challenging the edifice. So challenging the status quo requires not just courage but skill. And we've gone through five things that we can do to increase the chance of our success: Anticipate the opportunity, ask for permission, begin with inquiry, not advocacy, model emotional intelligence, and demonstrate a grasp of the past. If you do those five things well, the risk goes down and your chances of success go up. Tim, any final thoughts?

0:48:49.0 Tim: Just to say that I think this is an indispensable skill. And I don't think that anyone can reach their full potential without developing this skill. So their ROI associated with this is enormous.

0:49:04.2 Junior: Agreed. I really appreciate the conversation today, very, very helpful reminders for me. I'm gonna try and put these things into practice as well. Be sure to tune in to the next episode. We will be sharing the final five steps, which are equally valuable. So do not miss it. Thank you everyone, for your time, your attention. We appreciate your listenership. If you liked today's episode, please leave us a review and share with a friend. Take care, everybody. We'll see you next time. Bye-bye.


0:49:37.6 Freddy: Hey, Culture By Design listeners. This is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at And if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about Leader Factor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly, if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture By Design Podcast, or even request a topic from Tim and Junior, then reach out to us at, or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design, not by default.


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Episode Transcript

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