Six Ways to Defeat Complacency

Complacency – and its ill effects – is all around us.

Consider politics. Democrats held one Senate seat for 47 years, and assumed they’d win again in 2010 but didn’t.

Consider sports. 2010 is the first year since 1993 – that’s 17 years – that both number one seeds, presumably the two best teams, are meeting in the Super Bowl.

Consider business. The Dow Jones Industrial Average – a composite of 30 of the most important and strongest companies in America – has seven new members since 2000, and only five (DuPont, Proctor & Gamble, ExxonMobil, United Technologies and General Electric) have been on this list for more than 70 years.

Consider your business. Have you lost a Customer that was a surprise because they had “been with you forever” or “they love us?” Have your profits slipped a year after great performance?

To be sure, in all of these cases there are factors other than complacency at play. However, it is equally true that at least part of the reason for the above results is the insidious, sometimes undetected or under-appreciated, factor called complacency.

The good news is that complacency often comes after some success. The bad news is that it can spread quickly and reduce future success significantly. The best news is that it can be defeated. Here are six steps to help you.

Recognize it. Doctors know it is hard to treat a patient until a diagnosis is made. Complacency can start from a quiet confidence, which most would see as a positive, and slowly become a problem with first stages that aren’t noticed. What do you see different in people’s (or your) habits and approach? Are you taking the little things for granted? Are you doing less of the things that led to past successes?

Put it in context. Complacency won’t likely occur until you have had some success! Complacency comes because of the success. So, recognize and celebrate the success first, then challenge the complacent thoughts and actions. Help people remember the feeling that came with the success. When they can emotionally connect to that feeling, you can use that to ward off complacency and get focused on the next achievement.

Set new goals. If past goals have been met and no new ones set, you have a problem. Now is the time to engage others in setting new goals. Create them with the same excitement and anticipation you did in setting the past goals you and your team have met. Make sure the new goals are challenging enough to inspire the energy to combat complacency.

Keep purpose clear. Goals are great, but it is the underlying purpose or “why” that will truly drive discipline and performance and be a natural antibiotic for complacency. Remind people of your purpose. Connect people to the emotions of success and of reaching the purpose. If the purpose or vision has changed due to past achievements, recast that purpose in as meaningful a way as you possibly can.

Create healthy competition. Human beings love competition – whether with themselves or others. You can combat complacency with creative competition. Create ways to help people compete against themselves, or against the goals they surpassed last year. Allow teams to compete (though not in a destructive or disabling way) with each other in seeking common goals. Define an outside competitor as the source of your energy and effort.

Remember history and human nature. Like the examples at the beginning of this piece, history shows that complacency is a part of the human condition. Recognizing this helps you deal with it personally and as a team or organization. However, when you feel it or see it, don’t resort to guilt or blame; rather, acknowledge it, and use all your mental and emotional energy to focus on overcoming it instead of worrying about its presence.

Complacency; avoid it at your peril. When you choose to attack it before it spreads in your mind or the mind of your organization, the steps above will help prevent the spread and with consistent effort eliminate your current outbreak.