Don’t become complacent

Careers  Leadership
26 June, 2017

Creeping complacency leaves you helpless in the face of shocks. Do you recognise these red flags?

So, do you think you are coasting in your role? Do you feel satisfied with incremental achievements? Do you like your routine? Are you comfortable with the way things are? Do you end up making excuses when things go wrong? Do you tune out of meetings?  Do you feel worn out when you have to push something that seems difficult?

Watch out for any of these signs. You may be getting complacent.

Complacency is one of the biggest ills that can impact leaders. It lulls you into a state of false security, dulls your competitive edge, and leaves you helpless when the rug is pulled out from under your feet. The challenge though is that complacency does not happen overnight – it gradually creeps in.

What exactly is complacency? Doing things in a certain way, because that’s the way they have always been done. Ignoring what the competition is up to, because you’re meeting your goals. Passing by new opportunities, because you are content with your present success.

In an age of quicksilver changes, where entire industries need to reinvent themselves—or perish, complacency can sound the death knell for leaders and organisations by creating a dangerous vulnerability to external shocks.

So, this week, my message focuses on recognising the warning signs of a complacent attitude and addressing it head-on.

Ironically, it is success that breeds complacency—and the latter lasts long after the former has disappeared. Some of the reasons behind a complacent attitude are understandable: you want to be sure of your footing, maintain status quo, and continuity. These are admirable goals, worth pursuing, but not at the cost of being nimble, adaptable, and ready to embrace change. Certainty often comes too late for timely action, and yesterday’s best practice may not be tomorrow’s.

In order to become more resilient to external change and ensure long-term growth, we must identify where complacency exists and actively curb it.  

First, let’s take a quick look at some of the red flags. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • Fear of uncertainty.In an ever-changing marketplace, leaders may hesitate to act because they cannot anticipate the outcome with 100 percent certainty. As decision-making stalls, you lose control and become even more vulnerable to external unpredictability.
  • Broad brushstrokes. The attention to detail that created the initial success is forgotten—an early signal of growing complacency. Leaders come across as ill-prepared and communicate in broad generalisations, instead of pinpointing the specifics.
  • Leaders become followers.Instead of shaping a vision for the future, the focus is entirely on the “now”. With such a short-term approach, the leadership is unable to anticipate events and be proactive; instead, they simply react to events. From being leaders, they become followers—they are no longer steering the ship.
  • Kill-the-messenger culture.Anyone who offers criticism is dismissed as “being negative”. People develop an unhealthy fear of confrontation and of making anyone feel uncomfortable—honest feedback is lost in the pursuit of everyone getting along, all the time. Management constantly talks about how great everything is going, never bringing up weaknesses, mistakes or challenges.
  • Easily achievable goals.When a group achieves a measure of success, they may abandon the very practices of growth and innovation that led them there. Instead, they simply replicate the same actions, over and over again. Aiming high becomes a thing of the past and benchmarks are reset to be more “realistic”. With these low expectations, everyone always meets the targets. 

Now, here are six ways in which you can resist a culture of complacency and bring your leadership back on track:

1. Communicate your vision with heart

As leaders, we cannot simply drift along and wait for things to happen—we are the ones who need to make things happen. It is imperative to carve out a clear vision for the future, pinpoint big opportunities, and identify new goals. However, that’s not enough. In many instances, grand missions and objectives are created and rolled out with much fanfare. There are catchy slogans. There are posters, stickers, and t-shirts. There are lots of meetings. But, nothing tangible happens and people soon sink back into complacency.

What makes all the difference here is communication. And I don’t just mean the numbers and next steps, but getting your genuine enthusiasm and excitement across. Once you decide on a direction, you must communicate it in a way that captures your team’s hearts and minds. You need to walk the talk and allow your passion to be visible.

2. Create real urgency

Urgency is the opposite of complacency; where urgency exists, people stay motivated and purposeful. I don’t mean a sense of false urgency—which is simply busyness in disguise, with no real purpose. Real urgency is sparked by bringing a meaningful mission to the table. Once the team is inspired, sustain their enthusiasm by keeping the conversation going. Talk often about how each project connects in to the larger business objectives, and the vital role played by every single person. These cannot be participants in fleeting discussions if we want to keep complacency at bay.

3. Elevate your goals

If you and your team are hitting targets out of the park time and again, it might be time to raise the bar. Clearly, the goals have become too easy—which means complacency is likely on the rise. Push yourselves out of the comfort zone by setting ambitious objectives that simply cannot be met by carrying on business as usual. By forcing yourself to think out of the box and operate in a high-pressure environment, not only are you creating productive urgency, you are also preparing your team for future crises. 

4. Encourage continual innovation

Ask yourself, how could we do this twice as well? Or even ten times better? Just because something is working right now doesn’t mean it always will. So, you need to invest in innovation. Figure out how to enhance your processes and eliminate low-impact tasks that don’t tie in with your larger goal. Come up with “what if?” scenarios and brainstorm creative solutions to unexpected obstacles.

Also, don’t insist that your teams always play things safe by doing things the exact same way. Shooting down new ideas simply because “that’s not how we do it here” is one of the biggest drivers of complacency. Instead, embrace a healthy level of risk and try something different. Allow your teams (and yourself!) to make some mistakes—without this, there can be no learning and no growth.

5. Cultivate open dialogue

Yes, it’s crucial to recognise and reward people for their achievements, and this is key to our philosophy at Godrej. But in the interest of being positive and encouraging, we cannot sacrifice honest and constructive feedback. As leaders, it is up to us to foster a culture that welcomes questions, dissent and criticism—without these, any organisation is bound to get stuck in a rut.

Get feedback—lots of it—from different sources. Solicit opinions from growth-oriented people within the organisation, or bring in an outside voice to shed light on aspects you take for granted. Encourage your teams to question the way things are done: if a process can withstand scrutiny, it’s worth preserving; if not, it might be time for a change. Make yourself uncomfortable by talking to dissatisfied customers, frustrated vendors, and unhappy shareholders. Challenge the notion that everything is just fine, and dig up things that are being swept under the rug to preserve a superficial feeling of success. Once you surface the problems, you can begin to address them—else they will fester and be the very things that bring down the house in a time of crisis.

6. Bring the outside world in

No organisation can exist in its own little bubble. Be it market forces, government regulation or technological innovation, external events affect us all—and living in denial makes you even more vulnerable. Build a bridge between your team and the outside world by linking organisational realities with external factors such as the competition’s strategies and the emergence of possibly-disruptive trends. Make this an integral part of your team’s functioning: put it on meeting agendas, write about it, include it in presentations, and share compelling data and videos with each other. This way, you can spot and respond to nascent opportunities and impending threats in time.

As management guru Peter Drucker put it, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic”.

I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Indudhar says:

    Dear Sir,

    Very clearly defined article. I would like to add a few more to the points you have listed out.

    First and foremost, once an organisation is big, it loses its connection with employees at the bottom of the pyramid, the frontline managers start macro managing and leave out micro management – spending more time with data and missing things in the market.

    The managers look into macro details and more often leave out micro information. Now it is more about results than the process, complacency gets in when people are obsessed with results rather than the process.

    Secondly, as you have correctly mentioned, the leader plays a crucial role in building up his team and the team follows it up either with or without the leader’s knowledge. I remember in my last organisation how the team got obsessed with self goals and hence lost out on team goals.

    The third and most important thing is the technology. People spend more time with their gadgets than in the actual marketplace. They often fail to differentiate the reality and the perception of the reality.

    Sir, if one truly follows the ways you have mentioned, then I am sure one will never be complacent.


Join the 8AM conversation