The Nemesis of Improvement is Complacency

Hiding from change

If my years of experience have taught me anything it is that the nemesis of improvement is complacency. It’s that acceptance that whatever could be potentially improved won’t be because “that’s the way it has always been” or “that’s just how that person is” or “traditionally this is how it’s done here.” My opinion is that this line of thought is just another way of saying, “Even if it could be better, I am too darn lazy to even give thought to how it might be improved” or “I am so scared of change if you keep talking about it I will hide under my desk and just pretend I didn’t hear or see anything, then maybe it’ll just pass by.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people use the phrase, “well that is just how that person is.” My response, “well, that doesn’t make it right, so what are you going to do about it?” Yet still I am left amazed at how often people respond to that with something like, “I’m just going to leave it for now, and deal with it if it gets worse.”

So here’s an example. A manager once came to me complaining that a particular administrative assistant was consistently rude to them and apparently would even yell at them about their high workload. Of course I asked if there was perhaps a personal conflict at play but the manager responded by letting me know that no, this person was like this with many people. It didn’t take long to confirm this was indeed the case.

What’s interesting however is when I asked anyone if they had brought this to the attention of the manager this person reports to, the response I heard most was, “no, that’s the way this person has always been, so I just left it.” No wonder there hasn’t been any improvement, every single one of these people were either too lazy or too scared to say anything about it, even to the person’s manager! Can you imagine the impact of this behavior?

So I brought this to the attention of the manager, a discussion took place with the employee, and the behaviour began to change.

Another example relates more to practices in the workplace. For instance let’s explore a workplace where it is common for staff to have the ability to work from home for bone-fide reasons, but over time staff started taking this for granted and started saying they are working from home only to be discovered elsewhere. Well, that is wrong enough as it is considering they are lying about going home to leave work but what happens if it comes to the attention of management and the first response is, “well that’s just the way it’s been for a while now.”

Some time ago when I experienced something similar to this I couldn’t believe my ears! Again, no wonder there were other issues in the workplace. In these circumstances management weren’t even paying attention to the potential liability issues that might be raised, never mind the productivity of the staff. Complacency had kicked in and productivity suffered. Customer satisfaction was suffering. The performance of the organization was suffering. The credibility of the organization and its management team were on the line. Why? Because a group of people accepted that it was just the way it had always been done.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not standing on a stool and declaring that you should never take into account the historical reasons for something to exist. To do so would be unwise, and frankly it would be a dis-service to gaining a true understanding of the challenge, which is needed before planning any sort of change. Remember Stephen Covey? – “Seek first to understand, before being understood.”

What I am suggesting however is this, if you catch yourself or anyone else ever telling you that something is the way it is because that’s the way it always has been, stop and think about it.

  • Think about if there is actually a reason for this, and does that reason still make sense today?
  • Stop and think about what else may have changed in the time since whatever it was started, and what effects may have implications to this.
  • Stop and think about what future direction this should go in and how to get there.  
  • Stop and really think hard about why it just might be important to put a stop to complacency and consider a plan that will help improve things for the organization, for society or for the environment.

My guess is, more often than not, you’ll find that something could be done better.

A final note and this is specifically to the HR Professionals out there. If we want to achieve better recognition for our profession, why are so many of us settling for the status quo? What can we do as professionals to increase our capacity in strategically aligning our work with the goals of the organization? What can we do as professionals to illustrate that success as well?

Please leave your comments, thoughts and suggestions. I look forward to reading them.

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5 Responses to The Nemesis of Improvement is Complacency

  1. Good article Colin. A lot of good points were made.

    Just remember Management has to try harder to instill good communication skills with their employee’s to be able to respond to the delicate situations that effect the whole organization when it comes to complacency. Complacency also falls in the hands of poor managers too. Hopefully an experience HR person will be able to recognize that Complacency works both ways.

    • Colin Finlay says:

      Complacency is not something that befalls only one individual. It can affect many people, organizations and entire civilizations in some cases. My point is, I am not pointing any blame of being complacent on any particular people. It is in general.

  2. JM says:

    Interesting article Colin! It’s a shame about laziness and fear – intoxifying and paralyzing states indeed.
    Management is the heartbeat of a company. Unfortunately, lazy or poor management will undoubtably lead to many levels of employee dissatifaction and misconduct. A keen employee can quickly be deflated with poor direction or a lack of boundries, and will become increasingly complacent over time with continual neglect. Just as neglecting employees with disinterest can break down the lines of communication, a manager mismanaging issues directly, through gossip (surprisingly rampant), or though misguided attempts to fix problems in a backhanded sort of way, will also strain communication. Under these circumstances, employees are more likely to wise-up and stear clear of confrontation in the future. Who wants to put themselves in a comprised position, for nothing, or potentially, for worse? Confrontation is most peoples’ weakness anyway. Speaking out to “fix” something may put a target on an employee’s back and the alienation that could ensue IS scary. For an employee, it is about weighing the odds and choosing their battles. If it doesn’t directly affect their actual work, maybe it truly is not worth it. Complacency might actually be the better, more peaceful road (and especially during hard economic times when simply having a job is a gift itself). Learning to accept people by saying “that’s just the way that person is” can be very liberating. Having said that, when a real issue does have to be brought forward, how can an employee properly assess the situation as worthy to complain about in an environment of strained communication?
    How can this cycle end? How many employees need to be typecast as troublemakers or complainers before management actually listens? What if the issue they have is with management itself? Seriously, who wants to step up and be “that guy”?

    • Colin Finlay says:

      Hello JM, I appreciate your comments, they are grounds for much thought. I agree with you that in many ways management is at the heart of any organization. It’s a mechanism that is used to provide valuable resources to the rest of the body in order for it to receive and act on the communication it receives from the brain while at the same time providing feedback to the brain regarding its environment. Without the management of those resources the body would surely die.

      With regards to the fear one might feel regarding the potential backlash that might occur this is indeed one of the reasons that complacency is allowed to thrive in some environments. However to that I would offer that if we allow ourselves to be governed by fear then all potential for greatness is lost. Without the will to strive beyond the boundaries that are set by others great discoveries will remain lost. Also while I also agree with your statement about learning to accept individuals as they are, this is not the context in which I presented my article. My intentions were to point out that if you continue to allow negative behaviours to exist because you have accepted them to be part of “the way the person is” then it is unlikely a positive change will come to pass. Typically in my experience people exude negative behaviours because they are not self aware of either their existence or the impact they cause. Once that awareness is made clear often an effort is made by the individual to change that behaviour. I would also suggest in regards to your comment on confrontation that it isn’t always needed. There are other ways of managing conflict that don’t always result in confrontation.

      You asked how the cycle ends? The answer is, with effort. However in an environment where complacency exists effort is often lacking except in the form to continue on as status quo. You also asked “how many employees need to be typecast as troublemakers or complainers before management actually listens?” I would answer that with this, it depends on the quality of management that exist and the strength of character of those who see that change is needed. You ask, “what if the issue they have is with management itself?” I would suggest that this depends on at what level, and how high up the ladder this issue persists. If you feel this issue is at the very top of the organization, then I would ask, why stay?

      To answer your last question about “who wants to step up and be “that guy”?” The answer in my opinion is simple. It’s the person who cares enough to know that doing what is right for people, the organization and the environment does make a difference. If it doesn’t then it may be worth considering if that is the right place for that person anyway.

  3. Pingback: Are You an Ambassador of Change? | Colin Finlay, CHRP

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