“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
It’s the phrase that sends chills down the spine of every change agent and creative thinker. In change management training programs, we provide leaders with techniques and strategies for overcoming these objections and short-sighted modes of thinking that hinder progress. These change managers can challenge individuals with a rigid perspective and help them think beyond their current experience so they’re more open to new possibilities.
Interestingly, we are better at identifying a lack of flexibility/adaptability in others than we are in our own behavior. Every individual has work style preferences, motivational drivers, and strengths that influence the way they lead. As they progress through their careers, engage with different teams, move up the ladder, and even change employers, their preferences change very little. Assuming they’ve experienced success over time, that also instills confidence that their style/behaviors have been effective and therefore are likely to continue. They may go years leveraging these strengths and natural work styles without incident, and then suddenly everything falls apart. Perhaps the organization experiences sudden turmoil or the team dynamic shifts rapidly. Any number of factors can turn the tried-and-true change management tactics into works of futility.
Leaders who are rigid in their behaviors often leverage previous success as reinforcement for their resistance to change. They share stories of their victories and focus externally when examining why things aren’t working instead of adjusting their approach.
There is no one right way to lead all the time. If it was that simple, there wouldn’t be 50,000+ books on management in the Amazon marketplace. Every leader must regularly adjust to the people, circumstances, and needs of the organization across time or risk falling prey to the “way I’ve always done it” fallacy.
I like to use McDonald’s as an example with new leaders to help illustrate this concept. McDonald’s has 37,855 stores across 120 countries/territories. The #2 best seller (just behind French Fries) is the Big Mac, so you may assume that the Big Mac is a featured item on the McDonald’s menu globally. But, in certain regions like India, for example, they don’t even offer burgers on the menu. They offer Chicken Maharaja Mac and Veg Maharaja Mac. While McDonald’s knows what they do the best (and what sells the best) is burgers, they also know that adapting to the needs of a specific region is the only way to be successful.
Being aware of your own preferences and being open to adjusting is critical to the long-term success of any leader. Maintaining the foundation of good leadership skills (effective communication, building trust, leveraging talent, managing conflict, communicating vision, etc.), but adapting and evolving HOW you implement these within the context of a team, is what creates consistent results across a career in leadership. Sometimes you have to put down the Big Mac and pick up the Spicy McChicken to get the job done.