Waging War on Complacency


Complacency is a silent, sneaky malady quietly chipping away at an organization yet is hard to detect, identify, and eradicate. Complacency disguises itself well and is not readily evident or self-diagnosed, making it an unpopular discovery. Complacency is a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction coupled with an unawareness of danger or trouble looming around the corner.

It is an all-too-common occurrence in organizations that have achieved success, and knowing how to identify complacency is half the battle in overcoming it.

Malicious? Intentional? Laziness?

What’s vital to understand is complacency is not malicious, intentional, or has anything to do with laziness. It’s just where the brain goes when organizations and people have had success. And this includes traditional success, anecdotal success, and historical success that could have taken place a decade ago.

When people feel or say that, “I’m okay just the way I am.” Or, “We’ve been successful for some time now; we’re doing fine.” Or, “Change, what’s the point of that?” you’re usually knee-deep in complacency.

As a result, complacent organizations become inward-looking in their perspective, insulated by their past successes, unaware of mounting attacks from their competition. As a result, customer-facing issues get brushed off to the side, and talk of how good we are quickly command the conversation.

The Nature of Complacency

But this is not an easy battle because complacent people do not view themselves as complacent. On the contrary, they see themselves behaving quite rationally and creatively in justifying their perspective.

Complacent people display themselves as rational, thoughtful, and prudent employees, which aren’t traits that would get anyone fired.

Complacency comes from past or perceived success, from people who never think they’re the ones being complacent. This challenge is a catch-22. Complacent employees are content with the status quo, proud that they helped build a system that can achieve great things.

The Dangers of Complacency

One of the dangers of complacency is that it’s a “feeling.” Harvard professor Dr. John Kotter notes, “It is usually less a matter of conscious, rational analysis than an unconscious emotion. This point is significant because people treat complacency as a state of mind that can be changed solely with the “cold, hard facts.”

Complacency is a “feeling” that a person has about their behavior, about what they need to do or not do. This is important because it is possible to see problems yet be astonishingly complacent. After all, you do not “feel” that the issues seen require changes in your actions.

How Complacent People See Themselves

Almost always, complacent people do not view themselves as complacent. They see themselves as behaving quite rationally. They can be aggravatingly creative in justifying their point of view. Dr. Kotter states, “These people can be hard to spot because they look rational, thoughtful, and prudent. Worse yet, they can see themselves as rational, thoughtful, and prudent. They do not alertly look for new opportunities or hazards. They pay attention to what’s happening internally. Mostly they do what has worked for them in the past.”

Disruption, in the form of innovation or change, feels like a hazard to a complacent employee. They like what’s already in place, not realizing their competition moves at 70mph while they are at 40mph. Thus, complacency acts as a brake to growth and more significant success.

Complacency Buster

If you realize your company may have a complacency problem, don’t fret. Complacency doesn’t have to be permanent, but it will lower performance and make your businesses out-of-date over time if it continues.

The first way to overcome complacency is to recognize and acknowledge it, first in yourself and then in those you’re leading. Where there is awareness, there’s accountability, and accountability creates action. Change leadership is that action the begins to shift the focus from complacency to true urgency.

Employees who are continually learning, adapting, and growing are employees who are participating in a change leadership environment. To learn and innovate, consider giving employees time within their workday for it. In addition, when new thoughts and ideas are presented, a change leadership environment is one where views and opinions are valued and considered.

Complacency is a chameleon of a problem and can hide and disguise itself without detection. Change leadership is a mindset shift that can transform an organization from the inside out. If you have a sense that complacency is plaguing your workplace, let’s get rid of it and propel you into a better future. Get in touch today to get started.