What Are the Problems Associated With Workplace Complacency?

It's easy to get complacent when things are going smoothly.

It's easy to get complacent when things are going smoothly.

Complacency is like the mythical sirens whose sweet music lured sailors to treacherous, rocky waters, where their ships sank and the sailors died. The sailors knew the waters were hazardous, but they just couldn’t resist. Like the sirens’ song, complacency is alluring because it provides a sense of well-being. Unfortunately, it can have disastrous consequences, including an accident, a lost business opportunity or even death.

How It Happens

Complacency usually creeps into the workplace as a result of overconfidence. Experienced workers may skip safety precautions that require extra time and effort. Workers performing repetitive tasks, for example with machinery, may become less alert, even if they don’t violate safety procedures. In the press of everyday business, supervisors may overlook the need to inspect equipment regularly for signs of wear or stress. In an office environment, complacency may appear as unwarranted self-assurance, or taking a client for granted.

Injury and Death

Accidents, which can result in serious injuries or death, frequently are a consequence of complacency. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration as of 2010 estimated that 70 percent of refinery accidents in the United States stemmed from process safety management problems such as preventable mechanical failures, faulty operating procedures and failure to implement recommendations from safety inspections.

Unwelcome Surprises and Lost Opportunities.

In a corporate environment, it’s easy to take a long-term client for granted. The client has always renewed the contract, so you don’t even think about the possibility that she may shift to another provider – until it happens. Complacency may keep you from asking the client the obvious questions: Are you happy with our performance? What could we do better? By taking the client for granted, you also miss the opportunity to increase profits by expanding the range of services you provide. Ask the other obvious question: Are there any other areas where we can provide additional services?

Preventing Complacency

Training is great for safety awareness among new employees, but it’s not very effective at keeping experienced employees from becoming sloppy or overconfident. Awareness training may inspire caution for a short while, but it soon wears off. Periodic safety meetings are a way to reinvigorate your staff's commitment to safety. Ask employees to identify equipment or procedures that are potentially hazardous. To reinforce safety among experienced employees, ask one of them to lead a safety meeting, and then appoint a different experienced person to lead the next meeting. Teaching safety to others will inspire them to be role models for safe practices. In the corporate environment, healthy competition -- with rewards attached -- is a great way to ensure that everyone pays attention to details so no client is taken for granted.

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About the Author

A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

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