Executive Insider

Why Challenging the Status Quo is a Team Sport

Tracey Ezard

In the increasingly complex environments most businesses are working in, adapting and flexing in response can often be a market winning strategy. To do this in a friction-less way, a culture where teams can step into positive debate and challenge of the status quo is the game changer. A positive challenge culture has a buzz in the air of learning and curiosity and it assumes that continual improvement is a daily activity.

In a thriving challenge culture, we willingly poke at our status quo, our assumptions and ‘the way we’ve always done it’ with anticipation rather than fear. There’s a bit of thrill when topics are put under the debate and design lens. In many team cultures, people instead experience an unhealthy conflict culture – people armed and ready to fight for their opinion to be the one that wins. Resistance, closed minds and territorialism reign. We become stuck and unable to move forward as a collective. Status quo wins.

To create this positive challenge culture, leaders and teams work together to solve complex problems. This allows the intersecting and integrated parts of the business to bring perspective, insights and knowledge that make better decisions.  Co-creation and co-design become possible. These conversations explore, ideate and then synthesise into experiments and solutions. Newsletter

It’s when we move to a collective willingness to challenge our own thinking that we start to co-create solutions. This collective listens deeply, asks curious questions and let’s go of an individual ‘being right’, a replaces it by the intent of finding the ’best right’. Here are some indicators a positive team challenge culture is on the way:

  • Hierarchy fades – positional power is put to the side to enable open and transparent discussion 
  • Curiosity leads – our questioning skill about how we might do things differently creates a space of exploration rather than judgement 
  • Listening deepens – we seek to understand perspectives and insights at a much deeper and informed level from each other 
  • Trust and connection emerge – our understanding leads to seeing the situation with both empathy and a clearer lens, and the relationships strengthen as an outcome 
  • Possibility appears – we can make decisions about future steps from a much richer and informed platform 

Does your culture experience these indicators of challenging the status quo together? There are 5 key things that may help you and your team get there faster: 

1) Give yourselves permission to adopt a challenger stance all together 

Everyone in the discussion takes on a challenger stance together with a spirit of pushing the status quo around a particular topic. This stance explores dissonance in a positive and energising way. We are all in it together. 

On a visual canvas, note down people’s curious questions about the topic. Reflect on such things as: 

  • frameworks that guide the work
  • beliefs and underpinning principles
  • processes and policies
  • assumptions
  • outcomes and measures of success
  • client needs
  • market context

All sorts of interesting and curious insights arise from this discussion. People free up from being given permission to challenge rather than agree. Opportunity and possibility emerge from the discussions.

2) Drop the ‘y’ 

Challenge cultures don’t challenge the person, but the thinking. Instead of saying ‘I’d like to challenge your thinking’ say ‘Can we challenge our thinking here?’ That one little letter makes all the difference. 

3) Drop the need to be right 

Being right all the time is exhausting… spend some time assuming you’re wrong and open up to other ideas and approaches. 

4) Play lightly! 

Curious, playful and exploring cultures shift and transform in ways that entrenched and oh-so-serious ones can only look over at with envy. 

5) Know your part 

Have self-awareness of what you personally bring to the culture of challenging the status quo. When you’re discussing perspectives between colleagues, what is your impact on the quality of the conversation? Judging people’s responses harshly leads to shut down and low level, transactional conversations. People keep their thoughts to themselves, and we lose the ideas that could really make a difference. Activate deep listening and ask questions that deepen your understanding, and you’re well on the way to a robust, insightful and useful conversation. 

Every quality conversation leads to a positive challenge culture where the status quo is never left to set in stone.


Written by Tracey Ezard.
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Tracey Ezard
Tracey Ezard is a keynote speaker, author and leadership and team educator. Her leadership framework of Ferocious Warmth helps leaders find the balance between the head and the heart, results and relationships, strategy and culture.


Tracey Ezard is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.