Workplace complacency is a danger for all organisations.
Some call it a ‘disease’. Others as ‘fat’ or the ‘enemy’.
Whatever language we use to describe it, it is clear that complacent workers can impact a team’s success.
Let’s begin by ensuring we are clear about what exactly complacency is.
There are two forms of complacency we might experience in the workplace – those who are intentionally complacent and others who are unintentionally complacent.
When people stall on purpose and accept mediocrity as their standard, they are intentionally complacent. This is usually caused by feelings of disgruntlement with management and feeling fed up with, or lacking confidence in, colleagues.
And then some people are unintentionally complacent. It can happen when everything around you is mediocre, and there is a culture of underachievement. Instead of rising above that level, you get dragged down to it. It can also happen when someone gets stuck in the routine of doing the same thing the same way. Boredom is a massive factor. If it is not managed, it can quickly spread and disrupt the rest of the team. This can impact a team’s creativity and problem-solving ability, and, ultimately, it can damage productivity.
It is something I recently asked Tienie Loubser, our learning and organisational development director, about.
“We all want to be comfortable at work,” he said. “But we also want to be challenged and stretched in our roles.
“There is a saying ‘nothing grows in a comfort zone’.
“Complacency halts progress and means your start accepting the mediocre. Standards drop. It can lead to people being overlooked for promotion. And, in the worst case, it can lead to people being fired.
“If everyone in the business is doing mediocre work, there is no progress. Not only are targets not met, but it becomes accepted that they will not be met.”
But how can leaders identify complacency in their teams? And how can they tackle it?
So, what can we do about complacency?
Well, we will come on to what managers can do about it when they identify it in their team. But we are going to begin by looking at the steps an individual can take.
Why? One reason is managers can advise their team members to follow these recommendations when they see complacency.
But it is also vital to remember that complacency can creep in and impact anyone. Leaders are not immune.
We can probably all recall times where we have felt we have lost that passion and fire and become settled, tolerant and lethargic. Or where we feel we can anticipate every aspect of our role.
Here’s what we can do about it as individuals:
A good starting point is to change your work routine. We are not talking about tearing it up and starting again.
But simple changes can take us away from that comfort zone, make us think differently, find new connections and discover better ways of doing things.
Tienie said: “Instead of getting into work, fetching a cup of coffee and then switching your computer on, get to work, switch your computer on, chat to a colleague about a problem you are busy with, then get that coffee.”
Tienie says another crucial tip is to ensure you move on to the next task as soon as you complete something on your ‘to-do’ list. Don’t wait for the next thing or wait for someone to tell you what to do.
There is a great quote from Steve Jobs about this. He once said: “I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what's next."
Talking of ‘to-do’ lists, do you ever consider what you have achieved when you tick off your tasks?
Tienie says it is imperative we keep an eye on our achievements, reflect on how we performed and celebrate success.
He said: “Debrief what you have done every week, if not daily. I have a list - I call it the ‘The Vital Few’ - that I create on a Friday for the following week.
“I have different colours for the tasks that need immediate attention and those that can wait a few days and space of the things that come in by email or phone because we should also recognise what we do with those.
“And, as I tick those things off, I hold myself to account on the standard of delivery.”
This is where rewards come in. Giving ourselves rewards when we exceed our targets can be a good way of pushing forward and striving to beat the next target.
“There was a pair of jeans I wanted, and I made sure I ticked off the crucial tasks I needed to do and was happy with what I delivered before I bought them,” he said.
“But it doesn’t have to be about buying things. A simple reward could be more downtime. I try to make sure I spend 30 minutes a day outside without my phone or any other distractions and just switch off. If I’ve ticked off my tasks and debriefed myself, I can extend that time. Just make sure the reward is relevant to you.”
Another way of avoiding complacency is to feed our curiosity. Keeping a curious mind can help us learn, develop and improve.
A great way to do this is through volunteering. Put yourself forward for new projects and initiatives at work. Offer to train your co-workers in your area of expertise. And seek new adventures and experiences away from the office.
Complacent people are often comfortable. They are operating within their comfort zone, ruled by familiarity and routine.
Stepping out of that zone can be scary.
But it can also open minds to new thinking and approaches. And it can show us what we can achieve when we push ourselves.
If you are fearful of public speaking, for example, put yourself on a presentation skills training course (our sister company Media First can help with this) and then take on that next big presentation.
Outside of work, try something that pushes your boundaries, like bungee jumping, or free climbing.
If you feel you are stuck in a bit of a rut and are not achieving what you want to, don’t be afraid to display your vulnerability and ask for help.
A business coach or mentor will challenge you and your thinking.
So, these are the steps we can take as individuals to tackle complacency. But how do leaders identify it in their teams? And when they do notice it, how do they tackle it?
“The biggest issue for managers is not solving complacency, it is identifying it,” says Tienie.
Let’s focus on that identification.
There are three key signs:
The first, and most obvious, is behaviour change: This is where the work being delivered has dropped below the usual standard for at least four to seven days.
Another thing to look out for is other team members being reluctant to work with a particular person. This can happen where that person is not bringing the same standard of work to the team or project.
The final one, and most interesting, is attitude. It is typically characterised by an “I don’t know” attitude, where they seem unable or unwilling to resolve any situation.
The intriguing aspect of this one is it is something leaders often try to ignore. Tienie said: “A question I use a lot in my business coaching is “what are you pretending not to see?”
“Leaders often know there is someone behaving like this. But they don’t call it out. This might be because they are the top salesperson; because it feels like too robust a conversation; or because the leader is struggling to have an opinion and hold people to account.
“It could also be because they don’t know how to resolve the issue.”
And that brings us neatly to the final part of this blog. If leaders notice signs of complacency in their teams, how do they tackle it?
Business coaching skills are crucial here.
Leaders should be curious and ask questions. This will help them to understand the reasons behind the complacency and how to move them to a more positive mindset.
Tienie said: “There may be a simple reason for the complacent behaviour, and asking the right questions can uncover what that is and if they are ok.
“But it can also help the leaders to understand the growth areas for that person and give them challenges.
“Ask them what they’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet been able to achieve. And look to create situations where they can develop.
“Often, people become complacent because they are bored and are not being challenged enough.
“Giving them a dressing down and a talking to, or micromanaging them isn’t going to shift them.
“A better approach is to say, ‘I’m concerned about you, how can we help you?’”
These conversations can also help to build trust, which, in turn, can improve mindset and motivation.
Another good approach is to give individuals and teams more influence. Giving them ownership of projects and the authority to make decisions can play a pivotal role in removing that boredom factor and giving them more motivation.
And, of course, once you have identified complacency, are prepared to challenge it and understand the reasons behind it, you can bring in the other approaches we highlighted earlier in the blog to tackle it.
Keen to find out more? Get in touch to see how our Institute of Leadership and Management business coaching courses and bespoke training options can help.
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