From TJ Magazine: Combat complacency

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Written by Steve MacAulay and Sarah Cook on 10 April 2019 in Features

Is your firm in danger of resting on its laurels? Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook reveal how L&D can help in the fight against organisational complacency.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

Complacency is a silent killer that sucks the life out of many organisations. The dictionary definition of complacency is: 'a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements'.

In this article, we look at ways that complacency damages the long-term future of your organisation and how HR and L&D should take action to guard against resting on your laurels. The article spells out how to take steps to keep a sense of curiosity and urgency throughout the organisation so that it stays open to new ideas and more readily embraces change. 

The seeds of complacency

In the words of Microsoft founder, Bill Gates: “Success seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” An organisation that has achieved prominence has done so by striving hard, finding new and original ways of doing things, and by engaging the energy and commitment of its employees.

Once successful, ways of working start to become routines and often then turn into rigid rules: a 'we don’t do it that way' approach. This can become a silent killer as it is easier and more comfortable to stick to the tried and tested.

Given ever-present risks, it is important to review the way your organisation works and to guard against the seeds of complacency

Microchip maker Intel was developed under the leadership of Andy Grove who worked to promote a company philosophy of 'only the paranoid survive', the title of his 1998 book, stressing the importance of keeping the company with a continual sense of urgency and momentum, mindful that competitors and new developments are always one step away from toppling your success.

The list of once successful organisations that decline and fail is legion: recent history records the demise of former giants Blockbuster videos, DEC computers and Kodak. This list keeps growing – the latest is Sears, the world’s largest department store group with an impressively long history, but which has recently filed for bankruptcy. 

Such companies are a reflection of the dangers of sticking to the old ways, dismissing new developments and threats until they became corporate killers.

Recognising complacency

Given ever-present risks, it is important to review the way your organisation works and to guard against the seeds of complacency which are contained in every organisation – if they are allowed to take root and grow.


Our experience ranges from government bodies where little underlying change has taken place for many years and people are reluctant to try out new things, through to large successful businesses where a culture of self-satisfaction and little questioning of ways of working have become ingrained into the organisation.

We see a connecting thread that too many organisations are failing to spot threats and opportunities soon enough to act on them, often because key people have become content with the familiar, having often grown successful on past practices. Embedded in the fabric of the organisation you might hear: 'We always do it this way', 'We tried it in the past and it didn’t work', or 'It works well, why change?' 

Often, words may be less direct than these, with elaborate justifications for keeping the status quo. Nevertheless, they should be treated as potential warning signs of complacency 

Other signs and symptoms

Other potentially troubling indicators include the fear of making mistakes. This makes people reluctant to put forward suggestions and starts to stifle creativity and new ideas; decision-making becomes cumbersome and risk-averse, and decisions tend to be put off, even when many believe these are urgent.

Instances of harassment and bullying may become commonplace when someone questions the current situation, with such words as: 'That’s not what senior management wants to hear.' 

For example a successful retailing CEO whose one-way judgments started to stifle new ideas at a time when big profits and growth became a thing of the past, with the result that real change became near impossible and decision-making was starved of new ideas, despite official talk internally that the organisation was in crisis and 'no new idea will be dismissed'. He has now been replaced.

Another worrying trend is when people feel under no real pressure to do things differently or that they haven’t got the time to spot possible problems and opportunities as they are too preoccupied with the day-to-day.

There is little appetite to build for the future and learning and personal development often tends to take a back seat. The culture may over-value its history and the status quo, with the pervading ethos of comfortable familiarity. The danger is the organisation almost becomes numb to outside forces and the need to change.


About the authors

Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Executive Development and Sarah Cook is MD of The Stairway Consultancy.


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