Under the hood of “we’ve always done it this way”

What is the first though that pops in your mind when you hear this phrase?
What is the most recent memory that you have with this phrase?
Was it you using it? Was it someone else?
Can you recall the feelings you had in that moment?

Every time you’re saying “we’ve always done it this way” it’s like closing a heavy door in the face of any possible opportunity to learn, innovation and growth. It costs you in progress and profits. It can seriously affect your leadership and your bottom line. “It’s always been done this way,” is one of the biggest excuses people give for not challenging their comfort zone. It’s the short caption of a bigger story of being stuck: our routine is comfortable and more important than growing and improving. At least that’s how most of us are trained to look and understand this phrase. And based on it we label people.

What if “we’ve always done it this way” is not only an open declaration against progress coming from stuck people? What if “we’ve always done it this way” is also a story of “I don’t see the point, it’s not worth it, I don’t trust you”?

Whenever I hear someone say this phrase I am not assuming that I am front of a wall that needs to be broken. I am just hearing a request for rephrasing and validation of the whole story behind it: why this? What’s wrong with that? Who says so? Why not try before deciding it’s not working or worth being done?

First of all, it’s important to notice that we use this phrase when there is some kind of pressure that’s challenging something that we are familiar with, something that we have most likely mastered. We use it as a defense mechanism, we protect something we know and are comfortable with.

The second step in dealing with this phrase is noticing when exactly are we using it and decoding its meaning. What is the purpose of saying it? What is the story that’s running in the background? Is it the discomfort that the idea of change brings, is it fear of new responsibilities, is it fear of the unknown, fear of shaking the ground, and possibly facing failure? Is it about trust in our own self or lack of trust in others?

When you have to deal with this phrase. It’s part of your job to understand, decode and rephrase its meaning. In most cases, it’s not about the idea itself but only a feeling that comes with it.To me, “we’ve always done it this way” is a plea for help. It’s a cry to be heard, not dismissed. It’s a call for guidance and reassurance. It’s a call for a better explanation, for more details, for structure. It’s a call for a more clear vision.

When we say this phrase it’s best to not jump to conclusions about people who use it, but rather try to understand their point of view and help them find the way out of it without making any unnecessary judgments or labels. It’s best to listen, rephrase and validate the whole story. It’s better to give them a new perspective on it than just saying “the world is changing! We need to change with it! Stop being so stuck in your old ways! Try something new!!!”

“We’ve always done it this way” is not an invitation to become judgemental or label someone, it is an invitation to be genuinely curious to understand what is behind “this way” and why.

Gabriela Manciulea

Founder and CEO Calibrated Leadership
Business & Leadership Consultant