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Avoiding the Complacency Culture

Feb. 28, 2020
Don’t take for granted that everything is going well just because nobody got hurt today.

What have you walked past twice or more today without even a second thought because it has always been there? Another way of putting it is, what have you walked past today and didn’t even know it was missing?

Take a couple of minutes and really look at what you missed. It might even be a sound, like a noisy bearing. We get so used to our environment that we start to automatically categorize what is important or not.

We all do it and the more successful you and your team become, the more you slip into the cycle of “we are the best—all is fine.” Take an office environment. How many would walk past fellow workers standing on chairs to grab folders or say nothing about trailing cables? And yet, if a lion was let loose in that same office, everyone would be running around screaming. Complacency is nothing more than being comfortable in one’s own skin.

Consider this quote from Captain Edward Smith: “When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say ‘uneventful.’ I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” Smith said those words back in 1907, a few years before he became captain of the Titanic.

Complacency is an interesting thing that cannot be seen but it can certainly be felt! Take your first day at work. You arrive at the gate, you sign in, go through induction, and then finally you’re shown to your job, and in your head a little voice is screaming, “I want to go home!” Your chest has been pounding from the moment you got up, a condition known as “butterflies.” Over the following days, weeks, months and years the butterflies slowly disappear as you get used to the job and the environment you’re working in. As they fade, they light a fuse—luckily most people live to a grand old age without a scratch, but there are those who have the fuse blow up in their faces and are scarred for life.

As I stated earlier complacency can be the nemesis of your success. There has been lots of hard work amongst your team and you finally get to the top and ride the crest of the wave and then bang! An incident happens and everyone is asking what happened there. Coca-Cola has said that it was easy to become the top soft-drink brand in the world but staying there is the hardest thing.

Most complacency is made up of little steps and elements that people have missed. You could call it operational creep.

When I look back at my accident in 2000, there were several elements that people overlooked that in hindsight were obvious to anyone outside the organization or the industry:

● How we were trained and the lack of written procedures.

● Taking for granted that everyone operates the same way, when right-handed employees operate differently from left-handed ones as they stand in different ways to do the job.

● Miscommunication with walkie-talkies and hand signals.

● Leadership from bottom to top of the organization and how they deal with issues and successes.

● Overconfidence in trust amongst team members as they build a sixth sense in what they are doing that they understood what was going on.

● Overformalization with machinery, especially when it is going wrong consistently and how to deal with the issue.

● Narratives—the stories that people tell about incidents to make them a normal thing. When I joined the paper industry as an 18-year-old, the narrative was that to be a papermaker, you had to lose a finger. It was almost a badge of honor or a cover for one’s embarrassment that they had mutilated themselves at work.

How do we stop having a complacent culture? Site walk-arounds with people from the department and people from the outside walking together. Remember that those from the outside are not asking questions to catch people out—they are asking questions about situations that have potential to have been missed.

Technology will help as well as more security cameras are installed and used, and body cams will play their part too. Body cams are great as they get a prospectus from the actual boots on the ground and not from above. These are very reflective tools, as they are normally used after an event.

Debriefs can help as well, where teams review the day’s operations before they go home. Don’t leave it until the next day, as things can be forgotten when people go home and think about other things. Debriefs make it easier to talk about action plans that can be drawn up to combat any issues.


A continuous focus on the bedrocks of modern safety policies will help avoid the complacent culture as well. When I say bedrocks (or the foundations), I’m talking about the leadership, culture, communication and behaviors of the organization that encourage safer workplaces. These four elements have proven to reduce workplace accidents and incidents since they were recognized in the early 2000s.

So far I have focused on what organizations have done to reduce fatalities, injuries and ill health in the workplace, but we now need to turn our attention to the individual.

After an earthquake in 362 BC, a huge deep pit suddenly opened in the Roman Forum, and the Romans attempted to fill the bubbling hole, to no avail. Despondent, they consulted an augur who responded that the gods demanded the most precious possession of the country. The Romans doubted the warning and continued to throw in anything at hand, including jewelry, while they struggled to think of what was Rome’s precious possession.

A young soldier named Marcus Curtius reprimanded them and responded that arms and the courage of Romans were the nation’s most precious possessions. Astride his horse, fully and methodically armed and decorated, Marcus Curtius rode and leapt into the bubbling evil chasm. Immediately, the deep evil pit closed over him, saving Rome.

What has this story got to do with the individual avoiding the complacency culture? It illustrates the two rudiments that get anyone home each day: making the right decisions and having the courage to speak up and/or stop the job!

We make decisions every day, normally under no pressure or free will, as they are the right thing to do or they just need doing, like breathing. They are subconscious choices due to the environment around us. Now start adding pressure slowly and in the end the simplistic decisions to be made feel like life or death choices.

This is where courage kicks in, as it takes a courageous person to stop, speak up or walk away from a task.

Unfortunately, all too often because of the fog of complacency in the workplace, people get sucked into this spiraling mess that the job has got to be done because we cannot be seen as failures—whether it’s the self, the team or the organization.

It is like the famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It worked last time and the time before and we know what we’re doing because we’re the best.

Going back to Marcus Curtius and the Romans. The Romans knew that if you threw enough material in a hole it would finally fill up. But when it didn’t fill up, they just kept going by throwing even more precious objects into the hole. It needed someone outside the crowd to ask the right question and answer it with a decision that was a courageous act.

To break the spiral of complacency and avoid its culture, I finish with this quote from President Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” We rely on others to sort out issues, but actually it is us (the individual) that can stop the complacency culture from developing by being courageous to make the right decisions at the correct time.

Motivational speaker Paul Mahoney is principal of Paul J Mahoney Inspiring Safety Ltd., and is the author of Man V Machine: Journey of Complacency.

About the Author

Paul Mahoney

Motivational speaker Paul Mahoney is principal of Paul J Mahoney Inspiring Safety Ltd., and is the author of Man V Machine: Journey of Complacency.

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