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Complacency is the enemy of progress

I saw the following words on a poster in my bank manager’s office the other day.

Just because things are going well now, doesn’t mean
that they can’t suddenly go horribly wrong.

It was just below a photograph of a snail resting on a railway track, with a train approaching in the distance. While I realize that the poster was slightly tongue-in-cheek, I was still reminded about how easily and quickly leaders can fall into this very trap.

Sure, it’s nice to have a period of time when things seem to be moving along smoothly, when the bumps in the road are small enough that they can almost be ignored. But the reality is that while a short reprieve to catch your breath and celebrate success is well-deserved, resting on your laurels for too long can only get you into trouble. When we get complacent, we tend to both under-estimate the risks we face, as well as over-estimate our own abilities. And when complacency kicks in, things can suddenly go horribly wrong.

This poster got me thinking about how we would know if we are falling into the complacency trap. What are the clues you should watch for as a leader that might indicate you are taking the status quo for granted? Here is the list I came up with:

  • You are always supremely confident about every decision you make. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you should repeatedly second-guess yourself. But if you get to the point where you stop anticipating what could go sideways, then you might be complacent.
  • You reject change. Sure, change for the sake of change is not the right answer either. But if you constantly hear yourself saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, then perhaps you might be complacent.
  • You become predictable. Doesn’t matter if it’s at work or at home, if those around you know exactly how you will respond and behave in certain situations, then that predictability leads to complacency. When you start hearing “I knew you’d say that”, or “I knew you’d do that” over and over again, it might be worth evaluating if you are heading towards the complacency trap.
  • You lack ambition. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out, or if you can count the days to retirement, if you’re settling for where you are in your career, then you’re moving towards complacency. Now I understand that those of you close to retirement are not thinking about your next job, but you should still be ambitious about what you’re going to do when the regular nine-to-five is over.
  • You don’t try anything new. Whether it’s traveling, trying different foods, meeting new people, or even shopping at different stores, doing the same-old means that you’ll never know what else is out there. So if you’ve fallen into the same ho-hum routine about where you vacation, what you eat, and where you shop, perhaps it’s time to push outside of the usual. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming complacent.

So this is my list. But I’d love to know what you have to add. What are some of the other clues that you might be falling into the complacency trap? How can you avoid sabotaging your own progress? Please share your perspectives directly on the blog at

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Turning Managers into Leaders

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