How to dislodge the status quo, and a prime minister

How to dislodge the status quo, and a prime minister

Status quo bias is the nemesis of behaviour change. It’s what we have to overcome in order to persuade people to do what we would like them to do.  But as Australian politicians have so kindly reminded us, status quo can be dislodged even in the most unexpected circumstance.


Dislodging status quo


Typically, to overcome status quo – our tendency to ‘leave things as they are’ – a lot of effort is required on our behalf, analysing the cause of inertia and designing a solution to resolve the impasse.

 Indeed, that’s why I created my behaviour change framework (described below) that I use with clients across a broad range of business categories, sizes, and objectives. It helps to get people to do stuff.

However, I’ve never used it to analyse a change in leadership. More specifically, Australia has had five prime ministers in as many years (Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard to Rudd again to Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull), and only one change was the result of an election.

So, if status quo is the norm, why on Earth has there been so much change in political leadership? Why is status quo not , well, status quo?


What’s behind all the leadership change?


Kicking out your own leader, someone who’s lead you and your party into government and who is the prime minister of the country is no small thing. That both the Labor and Liberal parties have done exactly that over the past few years is extraordinary.

So let’s reimagine the most recent leadership change through the lens of my behavioural model.






Behavioural Change Model


Behaviour change projects all start with these central questions:

  1. what are they (our target market) currently doing? This is the current behaviour?
  2. What do we want them to do? This is the desired behaviour.


In Malcolm Turnbull’s case, the behavioural objective may have been;


  • Current behaviour (A): Liberal MPs not voting to change leader
  • Desired behaviour (B): Liberal MPs vote to change leader to Turnbull


Once we’re clear on the change task we can then work through the three barriers to behaviour change.;

  • Disinterest – where they simply can’t be bothered
  • Paralysis – they might be interested but are overwhelmed by choices
  • Anxiety (fear) – they might be clear on what to do and even want to, but are worried about committing to the action.


In the case of the leadership change it might have been something like this;

  • Disinterest – How do we get MPs to even contemplate the change? Get their attention by playing on emotion, not just facts. For instance, while their Rider might know rationally that voter polls are poor indicators of electoral results, their Elephant will find them difficult to ignore.
  • Paralysis – How do we make the choice between candidates as easy as possible? Use a limited candidate pool (Turnbull v Abbott for leadership, Bishop v Andrews for deputy) so that the choice set is narrow and easily understood. This is in contrast with the last Liberal leadership ballot when Joe Hockey was also a candidate and the vote was split. Get senior and well-respected members (e.g. Julie Bishop) to support Turnbull and signal that the change is the preferred option.
  • Anxiety (fear)– How do we overcome their fear of the change backfiring on how the Liberal Party is perceived at the next election? Dial into their anxiety about the risk to their seats (i.e. their jobs) if they stick with Abbott. Cite the loss in 30 consecutive polls to ensure their fear of taking action is less than their fear of leaving things as they are.

While status quo is the force with which we need to reckon, the pollies have reminded us that people will do the most surprising things if their behavioural barriers are overcome.

From overthrowing a political leader to getting someone to click a button on your website, influencing more people to take out life insurance or even stop yourself from procrastinating about a personal or work issue, by using the behavioural model you can anticipate what will get in the way of change and come up with strategies to break through.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. 


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