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Climbing Out of Complacency

A friend of mine called in a panic last week. She had just lost a huge client at work. The client said she had “lost her edge” and no longer gave them the attention they deserved and needed. Wow.

At first she did what anyone would do. She blamed everyone else. She offered up excuses. But in the end she admitted, she had grown complacent. She could have done better but now it was too late.

Complacency is when you stop learning, stop bringing your best, and stop trying. It’s coasting along until you’re blindsided. In fact, the definition of complacency in the Merriam Webster dictionary includes:

“marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies”

We all grow complacent at times. It happens for a number of reasons. For me it’s sometimes a feeling that no one notices what I do anyway… why bother. (Heads up if you manage people at work. Don’t ever let your employees think you don’t notice their efforts!)

Occasional complacency is normal. The problem is when you get stuck there AND you've grown complacent about something that is actually quite important to you. Just as happened with my friend, that train wreck will come someday.

There are many variations of train wrecks. You lose that big client. You get fired. Your marriage ends. Your complacency causes an accident or hazard for someone else. Maybe the train wreck is your slowly deteriorating health that leads to a major problem. The list goes on and on. It’s all depressing stuff. The only good thing that can come from this is that it lights a fire under you. A lesson is learned and you remember who you are and what you’re capable of.

The gap between what you are capable of accomplishing in a day versus what you tend to accomplish in a given day is what I call “discretionary effort.” If you’ve ever said to someone, “you’re not giving it your all,” you know what I mean. How big is that gap for you? Tapping into that discretionary effort can drastically change your life. If you’re a business owner, tapping into the discretionary effort of your team will make your business stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Complacency in Your Personal Life

Just like in a business, a complacent culture can take root in your home. Why do that little favor for your spouse? Why go to the effort of surprising them with a special dinner or outing? It’s not like they are going to leave you if you don’t. If you feel this way, you’ve grown complacent.

I grow complacent with my house sometimes. It starts to feel overwhelming keeping it clean and repaired and uncluttered. My big dogs don't help as they bring sticks and dirt into the house continuously. Sometimes you do just need a break. We can't be "on" all the time. As Barbara Waxman stated in an article entitled "Why Leadership is an Inside Job:"

This grind mentality isn’t working because we are designed as nature is designed—in a cyclical fashion. We breathe in and out. We have periods of productivity and dormancy. We need rest, a season of shedding the old, of retreat, before spring’s new growth.

You do need a break. But you can't remain there forever. You have to kick yourself out of dormancy at some point and back into productivity. It feels good when you do!

Complacency in Your Career

We’ve all worked with plenty of complacent people at work. These are people who are capable of far more than they let on. They’d rather get by with the bare minimum. They have no motivation to learn. But complacency like this will derail a career. Eventually someone with more drive and ambition will come along and skip right ahead while you lag behind. Bosses and key stakeholders won’t know the value you’re able to contribute. Maybe you’ll forget too.

In his book Soul Food, Frank Sonnenberg puts it this way….

One day when it’s important for you to put your best foot forward, you’ll learn that your skills have atrophied and you’ve lost your edge. You’ll come to realize that you’ve been coasting for so long that mediocrity isn’t just a bad habit – it’s who you are. Please don’t let that happen!”


It's important to note here that you can't "bring your best" to every single aspect of life. Knowing your values and priorities is key.

My parents have this lovely, sweet, well-meaning neighbor whose life is complete chaos. Everything is important and urgent to her. She has far too many goals, needs, tasks, priorities that all seem to need her attention at the same time. Do you know someone like that? As a result of everything being important, this neighbor accomplishes little, leaving her quite frustrated most of the time.

The need to establish priorities is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s important to remember that complacency is dangerous when you are complacent about aspects of your life that are most important to you. Job, family, health, friends, finances……..whatever it is. It’s crazy that we would become complacent about things that are truly important to us…..but we do! We take important things for granted all too often.

Take Aways

Complacency may seem like the easiest choice in the short term but it’s not rewarding in the long run. It’s really not a fun place to be. It’s boring. It intensifies your feeling of being out of control. It’s unmotivating. Depressing.

Here are a few ideas that have helped me climb out of a complacent attitude.

  • Self-improvement is one of the best antidotes to fight off complacency. It could spark a new idea. When’s the last time you took a course, or joined a conference, or read articles in a relevant trade magazine? If you do nothing, you’ll quickly lose your credibility. Besides, you’ll feel better if you continue to learn and improve.

  • Remember what you’re capable of. Have you ever noticed that right before you go on vacation, you become very productive? Or have you noticed that right before you have a party in your home you finally get around to all those little repairs, upgrades, and cleaning projects you’ve been putting off? On the days that you are truly productive and motivated, take note of the motivator. How can you tap into that more often?

  • Do something new. I love routine but I can get lost in it too. Sometimes I have to force myself to step outside of the regular rut and do something new. Try going somewhere you’ve never been. Visit a museum. Take a hike in a park you’ve never been to. See and do something new. This often helps me feel refreshed and ready to bring my best.

It’s easy to see complacency in others. It’s hard to recognize it in yourself. As with most things, recognizing it and wanting better is step one!


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