Do you have the complacency of a thermometer that just measures the temperature or are you a thermostat that turns up the heat on what really matters?
What thoughts does the word complacency invoke for you? Does it leave you un-phased because you are focused and driven? Or does it perhaps make you feel guilty or anxious because you might be drifting? We are all guilty of complacency at some time aren’t we?
If you do a quick check-in, how often has that been true for you in the last few months?
And if you are a leader and I surveyed your direct reports or your staff about the prevalence of complacency, what might they say about you specifically and the company or your unit more generally?
What is Complacency?
I’ve seen complacency defined as a feeling of quiet pleasure, contentment, self-satisfaction or security, often while unaware of some potential controversy, danger, defect, risk or the like.
It is potentially all around us and unfortunately we can often drift into being complacent without noticing it. As I wrote in the blog Anyway… one of the factors accompanying complacency is that every day, every week, every month will go by anyway, whether we are focused or whether we are complacent. How does a project end up being over a year late? One month at a time. Despite all the governance that is in place. Happens all the time, doesn’t it?
Sporting teams can often risk complacency after coming off a great win, which can lead to underestimating the next opponent and allowing themselves to be surprised by them.
As a residential property investor, understanding the drivers and staying on top of what interest rates are doing can be the difference between cash consumption and cash flow growth. (Cash flow is like oxygen – you can’t stay alive without it.) Complacency usually results in the latter, whereas focus can enable locking in fixed term rates at the right time ahead of interest rate increases or when they appear to be reaching the bottom of their cycle, thereby saving thousands of dollars then available for re-investing.
There are many links to leadership styles when we speak of complacency. Telltale signs emerge like: “Yeah, we already tried that and it didn’t work…” We miss deadlines. We take things less seriously. We start to allow ourselves to lose customers, although we had a hunch that there was something wrong. We rely too strongly on hope – hoping that next month will be better and “she’ll be right”. The Blame Game becomes more prevalent. Politics become more apparent. There is more wheel spin or unnecessary bureaucracy. Or what I wrote about in Ego versus Outcomes comes to pass. These factors all start to accumulate, don’t they?
What causes complacency?
Complacency, like Procrastination can be invoked by being intimidated by something or by the lack of confidence to start it. We have all witnessed that both at a personal level or within an organization haven’t we?
However I have learned that most of the time the opposite is true. The risk of complacency is ever present, particularly in good times, when we can be lulled into false sense of security like everyone running a small business has experienced – me included – that we land a couple great contracts that enable us to just focus on executing or delivering what we do best and in that time can easily forget to continue marketing and selling for when those contracts will inevitably end.
Then we suddenly we notice a few customers moving on and having grown accustomed to some ” fat cat thinking” can then fall into PLOM (Poor Little Old Me) thinking and feeling very sorry for ourselves.
In fact this doesn’t only happen to small businesses. Any business that has allowed its growth and continuity become dependent on a few key clients runs that risk. As we have seen so many examples of recently when the “mining boom” apparently dried up and cost savings measures rippled thru multiple layers of service providers, leaving many a company with lots of resources “on the bench” causing soaring overheads uncovered by revenue that decimated profits and cash flows. Without the right banking or funding facilities some even went under. Even some really good “old” companies. Complacency.
That was at a company level. At a personal level, many people that thought they were in “good jobs” were suddenly out of work. In Who is driving your bus? I spoke about how as employees and contractors we earn the right to a pay cheque one month at a time and need always to be on our toes. Complacency will raise the risk of surprise.
In Are you a “fetch” person? I described the kind of “fetch” people we want to employ or surround ourselves with, thereby reducing the risk of complacency because these people are usually so much more “driven”.
So how do we overcome or guard against complacency?
To me awareness is a key. As leaders we need to be vigilant and alert and be in touch with what is really happening “on the ground”. This includes the awareness of the right or wrong attitudes that abound. We need to stamp out the wrong behaviours quickly and “nip them in the bud” before they can become infectious and spread. We need to encourage (leading by example) the right behaviours we want to engender.
Good strong leadership is such a valuable factor. If everyone on the organization is:
- aware of and committed to the vision of the organization,
- understands their role and the part its successful leverage plays in the organization’s success,
- is empowered and supported to deliver great results,
- if it is a learning organization in which “having a go” is recognized and mistakes aren’t punished,
- if there is fair and just performance management that rewards the performers and weeds out the non-performers.
These are all straight forward leadership factors, aren’t they? But they work and they make organizations work. Why? Because they understand how powerfully what I wrote in What’s in it for me? works.
Also, goals means focused effort directed towards a purpose which means less risk or likelihood of complacency. A further remedy? Awareness of where we are at in terms of the market, our budgets, our pipeline and where and what our people are focused on.
None of this is rocket science, but invariably this takes Discipline and active and engaged leadership.
I found a couple really good quotes on the topic as well. For instance Colin Powell said:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It’s an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms.”
Or McDonalds leader Charlie Bell: “The biggest threat to McDonald’s lies within – and that is us as a company becoming complacent. There are a lot of companies that get fat, dumb and happy and take their eye off the ball and forget about serving customers.”
If we are in a leadership position we need to be the thermostat that controls the temperature not just the thermometer that measures it. In German we have a saying that the fish smells from the head. So consequently responsibility for any form of organizational complacency sits squarely with the leadership team that either allows it and just measures it (thermometer) or takes active leadership and intervenes to avoid it and replace it with inspiring the troops through it and out the other side to the expected results (being the thermostat).
If you are led, how well does your organization do all this? Or does it risk falling prey to the vagaries of complacency? If so, what are you doing about raising awareness about it and “rattling cages” that need to act?
If you are leading,what might this have cost your organization in the past? How well are you in control of the “hearts and minds” of what is going on within your organization? What risks are there of complacency and what are you doing about it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis so that you don’t say: “my organization is not like most others” but actually it is?
Thanx gents all for your comments. They certainly do add valuable dimensions to this debate
Chong-Yee Ong says
Great article Heiner. Complacency has another angle in the expectation that success in one area of the industry/client segment/service can automatically be replicated to a new market. The same “process of success” is reused without clearly identifying the needs of the market which leads to over-optimistic expectations of success.
One litmus test I find useful is to get an external opinion on the “success factors” to gauge how far you are off or on the mark. Nothing worst than to be blinded by your own success that you fail to notice the edge of the cliff.
Ian Peek says
Wise advice as always Heiner. I find I need to be constantly on guard against my own tendency for complacency. Having the good fortune to live in one of the most stable, safe and prosperous democracies I think leads to a sub-conscious belief that these conditions will continue indefinitely, even if there’s a conscious acknowledgement that these things don’t (and can’t) ‘just happen’ without commitment and effort. This applies just as much at the organisational (company) and personal level as it does at the national level.
My view is that we all need a ‘benevolent watchdog’ to keep us on our toes when we start getting too comfortable, and we all need to be prepared to lead and play that role for others when needed.
Yes as stated we tend to get complacent in Australia as we are told we are the ‘lucky country’, by politicians and the media. I’m not sure about the benevolent watch dog – sounds like a dictator. There is a general thought that the government will get us out – handout here, handout there which makes the general population complacent. Very dangerous
Ian Peek says
I agree David with your observation about what appears to be an increasingly unhealthy sense of entitlement (including expectation of government) among our population – this is a dangerous downside of the stable, safe and prosperous democracy that we’ve enjoyed for so long. I’m sure the populations of many other democracies also traditionally considered stable, safe and prosperous no longer have that same level of complacency after the events of the past few years. I think the time will inevitably come when we’ll also be jolted back to greater awareness of reality. However, I also think that we can all help manage this without the same level of disruption we’ve seen elsewhere if a critical mass of the populace has the courage and takes the time to and effort to play a ‘benevolent watchdog’ role at some level (and also to be receptive to this from others) .
Thanks for the pick-up re my meaning of ‘benevolent watchdog’ – it does sound a bit sinister so I should clarify. Having spent some time engaged with countries run by unashamed dictators or pseudo democratic governments, I’m confident this is never a recipe for a sustainably successful society. In the context of my observation a ‘benevolent watchdog’ at the personal level would be someone with whom we have a trusted relationship (mentor, friend, family member etc). At the organisational level it would be the Board or equivalent, sincerely motivated employees, customers etc. At the national level it’s our democratic institutions; parliamentary system, judiciary, civil society, constructive diplomacy, and most importantly of course; each of us as individual voters!
Ian, luckily Australia has a robust democracy so we are ‘the luck country’ in that sense. NZ is the same – we just need to protect it. As allegedly stated by Andy Gove ‘ only the paranoid survive’ – being always vigilant.
The best time to start was last year. Failing that, today will do.
— Chris Guillebeau
Well thought out blog. Complacency is often the result of leaders being too comfortable and having agendas concerned about themselves rather than their businesses, customers or employees. Generally this is ego, selfishness and unwillingness to move out of your comfort zone. Think the boiling frog ……………
Mark Cooper says
Great Article. History amongst great SuperPowers as well as successful Business is littered with examples of complacency that has lead to their eventual downfall away from success. Once it is observed it is often well on the way to disaster and efforts will have to be re-doubled to avoid ultimate downfall. Complacency should be added as a subject for review at regular Business Strategic and Operational Planning/Review sessions. The more comfortable you are feeling, the easier it is to let “complacency” through the back door. Regards Mark