Yeah, I guess I got complacent.”

Jack had been working the extruder for years, but this time he failed to recognize a common hazard when he was clearing a blockage. He got lucky, injuring only the sleeves of his shirt as the blades regained their motion. When asked, Jack, used “complacency” to explain his action. Frustrated managers often blame employees for being complacent.

Complacency creep

Common wisdom suggests complacency is built up over time by working a process again and again. As the worker comes in contact with the hazards of the job, frequently a process called “Habituation” can take over.  “HABIT (your Habits take over) UATION (the Situation)”. 

This means you go on autopilot and your ability to notice changes in the hazard, or perhaps your own behavior, fades.

Just as we habituate to loud noises over time to the point we barely notice them, we can become habituated to the hazards around us and barely notice them. Our behavior drifts toward risk because the hazards are not as salient to us. We no longer take extra precautions for safety. 

In fact, we probably don’t see the hazards as hazardous.

Habituation is a very normal animal conditioning (humans are animals by the way). In fact, it is a useful biological tool that frees up our brains instead of being overwhelmed by stimuli. We do it all the time. We do it automatically. There is nothing wrong with it.

Yet we blame those, including ourselves, who habituate to hazards; who become complacent in their tasks. In fact, we often accept “complacency” as a root cause in our incident investigations. 

Often the complacent individual is told to “pay more attention.” But we are exhorting them to go against human nature… to stop being an animal. And they can’t. Complacency shouldn’t be an exit strategy… the end of your analysis.

So let’s consider an approach to complacency from a behavioral science perspective. 

Acquisition – behavior seeks out reinforcement

Remember when you first learned a complex task? You varied the way you did the task in big and small ways until you eventually started doing it the same way every time. You got better and safer because you reduced your variance. 

This process of “shaping” occurs because you got reinforced for the correct actions.

Perhaps you had a coach who first corrected you and then said, “Yep, you got it,” when you did it right. Maybe you initially struggled using a tool, but when you used it correctly it made things easier. Or you finally got the harness to fit better so it wasn’t as cumbersome. 

A number of reinforcers shape your behavior. You systematically start doing things right, you get reinforced along the way. You master it and do the task the same way every time.

This is the fluency zone… where you want to be, where you want everyone to be.

A matter of extinction 

But our fluency gets extinguished, slowly burnt out by a lack of reinforcement. 

Complacency is a lack of reinforcement. 

When a set of behaviors are no longer reinforced, they go seeking reinforcement just like they did when you acquired the skill. 

Now small variations surface in the way you do your task. You begin to glance away from your work, allow for a bit more slack in the line, pencil whip the checklist a bit, fail to do that extra inspection — any one of a plethora of varying actions in search of reinforcement.

And behaviors find reinforcement, often resulting in undesirable results.  Perhaps it’s that small bit of social interaction, escape from boredom, a quicker procedure, one that’s more comfortable or convenient. Behaviors will find the reinforcers, and then the new variance sticks.  The variance starts small but gets bigger and bigger… unbeknownst, sometimes, to the performer. 

One only needs to look into the research surrounding Normalization of Deviance to see this phenomenon in action.

The process of acquisition-fluency-extinction is kind of like going down a funnel. You begin with a wide range of behaviors that get funneled down, through reinforcement and practice, to a narrow range. If these fluent practices are no longer reinforced, then you exit the funnel. Although initially well directed, you hit your target but then bounce a bit off the target.  You begin to go a bit off target again and again. If the behavioral variants are reinforced then that becomes your norm.

Now pair extinction, which causes more variance, with habituation.  What do you get? 

More risk happening in the midst of hazards that no longer feel so hazardous.

Bad news.

Fighting back

SO… how do you fight complacency?

If complacency is a lack of reinforcement… then reinforce more. 

This is what behavioral programs are designed to do. Prioritize your high hazard/high potential loss tasks. Create checklists to guide observations in those areas. Do observations (peer, self or supervisory) and reinforce safe acts, locking them in place a little longer. Find opportunities to discuss the drift you see and reintroduce the funnel.

We are in a constant fight against complacency. Fortunately we have a very strong tool in reinforcement.