Complacency is defined by the dictionary as "a feeling of self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by a lack of awareness of actual pending trouble, deficiencies or controversy." 

Research indicates complacency results from what is known as “Confirmation Bias.” This causes a person to interpret or look for information which confirms their currently held belief. This is true of just about everyone, when they assess actions, state of mind or beliefs of other people or groups. 

How a person evaluates their own actions or how others evaluate those same actions stems from this phenomenon. This is especially common with people who deviate from accepted practice, take risk, shortcuts, in order to accomplish goals or meet some objectives without experiencing any negative outcomes. These people are lulled into risk taking believing that an adverse event just “won’t happen to them.” Alternately a supervisor may attribute fault (complacency) to a worker for a failure, immaterial of the actual reason or cause.                                                                   

Doctor David Sirota, conducted extensive research involving over four million workers worldwide, to assess why people get complacent and demotivated at work. His findings indicated that most people start out enthusiastic about their work. They work hard so as to succeed and thrive in their jobs. 

But in the long run employees become demotivated, demoralized and complacent, thereby losing their enthusiasm which may result either in leaving the organization for another job, or worse, they do enough work just get by. The research indicated that among other things, this generally resulted from the intransigency of the organizational culture, implacability of the work climate, the inflexibility of supervision and management.   


The risk associated with complacency

Complacency generates many negative outcomes which may be injurious to the organization. The president’s commission’s analysis of the Deep-Water Horizon identified the root cause of this disaster resulting from a culture of complacency throughout the organization. The analysis of the two NASA shuttle explosions highlighted example of complacency, where information was not shared, warnings from staff ignored, risks were underestimated, and discounted, resulting in a general lack of concern associated with the risks involved and its acceptance. 

A culture of complacency can affect any organization, a worksite or work group where the primary focus is on meeting production goals or cutting cost, as well as accepting or ignoring standards creep. In such a culture speed is valued and cost cutting rewarded, while down playing potential risk, or ignoring possible consequences. In many cases, there is a continual pressure for greater speed and ever increasing the production output, without due consideration for capacity, capability or consequence (standards creep). As a result, in many cases the workforce may resort to shortcuts or greater risks so as to achieve goals and/or meet expectations in order to keep their jobs. 

A culture of complacency develops over time, reinforced by each risk taken in order to meet some short-term need, without experiencing an adverse effect. This causes people to use those deviations from accepted standard practices as the means and methods to perform their work going forward, resulting in standards creep. All this should reinforce the fact that all levels of management in the organizations must be on the “lookout” for such standards creep, where production trumps protection and a culture of complacency as well as risk taking becomes the norm rather than the exception.                                                                                                            

The signs of complacency

Employee complacency may occur for many reasons resulting in undesirable outcomes. Astute managers and supervisors must be on the lookout for this in order to quickly and effectively intervein so as to control its ultimate adverse effect. A sure sign of complacency is when employees stop being actively engaged in their work, stop solving problems, avoid work cooperatively in moving the project’s or organizational goals forward. This results in the employees’ failure to add value to the operations and ultimately negatively impact the organization.

Employee disengagement can also stop them from being thorough, detail oriented and over time they become lazy. Their action becomes disruptive to the work culture and a liability to operations. Workers lose their incentive to further their careers and organizational goals. Some of this may be the result of work that is repetitive and unchallenging. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that the employees do not see any potential for growth or promotion. Rightly or wrongly employees may perceive that playing it safe is in their best interest rather than being an active team member. These are strong warning signs that they are physically present but mentally absent in their work.                                                                           

Dealing with complacency

When a manger or supervisor labels an employee as being complacent, they assume that the employee is satisfied with their performance and that they are meeting expectations. So, to resolve the situation the employee need to be made aware of what the deficiencies are and how this needs to change. Following are some steps in the improvement plan: 

1. Characterize the Present-State

If a person believes they are meeting expectations, then they are in their comfort zone and are unlikely to want to change. The supervisor must clearly explain what the issues are, and how the employee can change things in order to meet expectations.

2. Articulate the Future-State

Once the person understands the concerns and envisions how to achieve the better future-state; they are more than likely to willingly make the necessary change(s). To ensure their engagement they must see the negative consequences of not changing; but more importantly the benefits in terms improving their productivity, increasing production, fostering their growth, and benefiting the organization. 

3. Enable their Improvement Journey

Different people will need different levels of guidance and support in order to persevere in their improvement journey. Help then craft a plan for getting from where they are to where they want to be. This may involve both constructive as well as positive feedback. Some may need coaching, while others may need counseling in order to enable them to achieve their goal.                                                                                                                        


In a way complacency is a risk, and there are only a few means or methods in dealing with risk. These are risk avoidance, risk transfer, acceptance and monitoring of the risk, reducing the impact or its likelihood. The first few mentioned are either ineffective or impractical. The ones that should garner some form of positive result are reducing the impact or better yet reducing the likelihood of those risks occurring. An operational approach is to make risk assessment a integral part of all planning. 

In construction, risk should be identified and assessed at every and all activities; from selecting and securing projects, to devising means and methods, staffing, subcontractor engagement, as well as workforce oversight. Functionally, such an organization is structured to be more responsive to risks and their treatments if dealing with risk is a part of all planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling as it regards every aspect of the project delivery process, and has some form of confirmation element that it is being carefully adhered to as well as managed effectively.