No phrase in professional life is met with more frustration. It is almost always wholly unsatisfactory as a response, hints at passive aggression, and underlies a stubborn unwillingness to change.
However, “that is how we’ve always done it,” is also a helpful reminder for leaders.
When that phrase is used, we tend to focus on the word, “that.” We may be trying to change or understand the thinking behind a process or behavior. So, “that” is what we are paying attention to.
But, for leaders looking to make lasting change, the “we’ve” in that phrase is far more interesting. It suggests a strong sense of ownership.
A prominent view of leadership is that the best, most capable leaders have the confidence, insight, and wisdom themselves to single-handedly identify and direct a path forward, or a strategy, or a plan for the team. In this model, good leaders are decisive.
And yet, this troublesome phrase – “that is how we’ve always done it” – suggests another, more inclusive and engaging model of leadership has a far more significant, longer-lasting impact on how people behave.
You have a choice. As a leader you can direct, “this is what I want you to do.” The team will probably accommodate the pronouncement, at least at first.
Or, you can skillfully and patiently seek to engage the team so that they own the plan, the process, the change.
And when the team buys into the decision, it probably won’t be long before you to hear, “that is how we’ve always done it.”