Tip #632: How the Status Quo Can Curb Learning

“I don’t accept the status quo. I do accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express.”  Stephen Colbert

“Status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.'”  Ronald Reagan

There is a lot that can interfere with a willingness to learn new things.

Andrea May has identified ten cognitive biases and we have considered the first eight: Confirmation, Anchoring, Curse of Knowledge, the Dunning-Kruger effect, Functional Fixedness, Mere Exposure Effect, Not Invented Here, and Reactance in previous Tips.

Now we’ll look at the last two cognitive biases and discuss how we can counter their effect through our training design and delivery. The titles and descriptions of the biases are Ms. May’s. The commentary is mine.

  1. Status Quo bias: The tendency to want things to stay relatively the same as they have always been.

Change may be constant, but it can still be very distressing to many participants. If you are teaching about a change in procedure, employees who have used the current procedure for years are likely to object for several reasons.

First, they are comfortable with how things have been done. Second, they may fear that they will not be able to master the new procedure. Third, they may get defensive, feeling that the procedural change indicates that their previous performance has been sub par.

To enable employees to get past the feeling that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you can have them brainstorm the pros and cons of the current procedure. This will hopefully help them to discover for themselves the need for the change.

Then show the employees what control they may have over the change. For example, they may be able to have input regarding when and/or how to implement the change so that it is as nonthreatening as possible.

  1. System Justification bias: The tendency to try to actively maintain the status quo.

When a company decides to use a more effective training strategy by moving their trainers from lecture and PowerPoint to a more interactive and participatory approach, some of the trainers may dig their heels in. As with the status quo bias, they are comfortable with giving lectures. They are also afraid of losing control over the class as well as losing their “expert lecturer” role.

They may object to table top kinesthetic “toys” (Koosh balls, pipe cleaners, glitter wands, bendables, etc.), asking if they are going back to kindergarten.

They may resist self-discovery learning activities (such as small group discussions, case studies, questionnaires, gallery walks, etc.) because they believe that the participants know too little, so the activities are a waste of time.

The fact that they will need to develop group facilitation and classroom management skills may give them pause. In brief, some of the trainers will not like it, may rail against it and may actively choose to ignore what they are being taught in a train the trainer class- at the beginning of the program.

However, these resistant lecturers may start to change their tune when they discover that participatory learning activities will enable them to get immediate feedback regarding the effectiveness of their training programs.

They will find that participating in these activities is both educational and enjoyable. They will start to laugh and enjoy themselves, fiddling with the table top toys and squeezing the Koosh balls.

As they hear about adult learning principles and the cognitive research into how the brain works, and as they design participatory activities and practice facilitating them, they will gradually become convinced as to its merit.

And any trainers who resist to the end and give a lecture when everyone else has facilitated an interactive learning activity will have to answer to their peers.

If you have recognized and addressed these biases, it would be wonderful to know what you did.

May your learning be sweet.


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