Workplace Complacency: Definition, Causes & Solutions

Home » Resources » Workplace ComplacencyUpdated: July 14, 2021

You found our guide to workplace complacency.

Workplace complacency is a psychological state when employees tune out, cease to think, and merely follow a routine. In other words, workers enter “autopilot mode” and complete tasks automatically instead of mindfully. Complacency can lead to underperformance, lower client satisfaction, and workplace accidents. Yet even mild cases of complacency are an issue, since settling for “just ok,” prevents employees from reaching full potential.

This condition can lead to employee attrition and staff turnover.

This article covers:

  • What is workplace complacency?
  • What is the difference between workplace complacency and employee disengagement?
  • What are the causes and effects of complacency at work?
  • How do you prevent workplace complacency?

Here is everything you need to know.

Why is it important to understand workplace complacency?

Motivational superstar Tony Robbins claims, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” In a fast-moving and ever-changing world, repeating the same routine for too long is a sure way to fall behind. Even the best and brightest upskill, revamp, and adapt. Yet some professionals succumb to the danger of the workplace routine and hit a professional plateau.

Workplace complacency spells trouble not only for individual careers, but also for organizations as a whole. Healthy companies are dynamic and open to change, as well as mindful of the quality of both the labor and the end product. Company complacency means settling for “good enough,” while influential organizations adopt a “what’s next?” mentality.

Employee complacency can limit a business’s success, yet many employers do not fully understand the extent of the problem or are blind to the warning signs. We prepared this post on the topic in hopes of helping leaders detect and correct the phenomenon.

What are the effects of complacency at work?

Workplace safety and complacency go hand in hand. Oblivious employees are more accident-prone and less likely to point out hazards that could endanger coworkers. Not to mention, on the job complacency encourages shortcuts that could jeopardize worker’s wellbeing. Meanwhile, conscientious workers care about coworkers and the company and feel compelled to protect and improve the community.

Complacency can also lead to boredom, which can eventually morph into employee disengagement and low morale. Not to mention, workplace complacency kills innovation and creativity, placing organizations and individual workers at a competitive disadvantage. When workers fall into a rut, productivity tanks, and a business’s profits suffer as a result.

While workplace complacency does not always doom a company, it certainly does not set the stage for growth and success.

What is the difference between workplace complacency and employee disengagement?

Disengaged employees are unhappy at work, while complacent employees are content with the status quo. While disengaged employees long for a positive change in the work environment, complacent employees prefer that circumstances stay the same, since the current state of affairs is comfortable, familiar, and easy. Also, while the disengaged employee is aware of anguish, the complacent employee is often completely oblivious to the existence of a problem.

Here is a list of employee engagement strategies.

What are the causes of complacency at work?

There are several possible causes of complacency at work. These reasons include:

Overconfidence – Employees who overestimate their abilities make little effort to develop or double check work. Assuming perfection, these individuals reject analysis and growth. While dynamic employees understand that there is always room for improvement, complacent employees believe that errors are unlikely or impossible.

Absence of accountability – When there is no consequence for subpar work or reward for exceptional achievement, employees may not feel compelled to exert extra effort. Worse still, the absence of accountability erodes trust and prevents effective teamwork.

Slow growth – When companies grow slowly and rarely change standard operating procedure, employees can easily fall into a rut. Though every company may not expand quickly, attract hundreds of thousands of new clients, or revolutionize an industry, every organization has the ability to increase efficiency and enhance the atmosphere.

Low standards – Leaders should set the bar high and demand the best of employees. A great leader pushes teammates to excel. When employers set low standards and have few expectations, employees may settle for mediocrity.

Lack of autonomy – Employees should feel empowered, not powerless. A lack of autonomy can lead to learned helplessness, or a state of inaction caused by an apparent lack of control. Employees who feel without a voice or unable to make a difference will not strive for excellence, settling for “getting by” instead.

While many factors can stymie progress and demotivate your staff, the items on the list above tend to be the most common culprits.

What are the signs of employee complacency?

Several indicators can clue leaders in to the fact that employees have grown accustomed to a routine and have ceased growing and innovating.

The following are signs of employee complacency:

Shortcuts – While engaged employees commit to quality, complacent employees care only about completing the task, often in the quickest manner possible. This attitude leads to sloppy work and cutting corners, which can result in workplace incidents or conflicts.

Strict adherence to rules – On the flipside, complacent employees can also cling to rules, not out of a sense of duty or conscientiousness, but because following instructions takes less effort than questioning. Which causes trouble when policy no longer serves a purpose and warrants reconsideration. Instead of challenging the rule and proposing a better solution, complacent employees shrug and say, “I don’t make the rules.”

Excuses – Because accountability is absent in complacent environments, excuses abound. Instead of learning and growing from mistakes, employees and managers shift blame elsewhere and refuse to reflect.

Silence – Healthy companies foster conversations between leadership and workers. Employees who have no questions or suggestions are a symptom of an organization that ignores or silences the worker’s voice. Employees who feel unheard, save their breath, listening but never responding.

Playing it safe – While complacent employees might take lazy risks like skipping steps of a procedure or surrendering to distraction, there is little to no calculated or professional risk-taking. Checked-out employees do not want to rock the boat, yet while they avoid making waves, they also avoid making progress. Industry evolution requires risk-taking, and companies and employees who play it safe miss valuable opportunities.

Workplace complacency can creep up on an organization, but observant and proactive managers can squash the workplace so-so’s when early symptoms appear. Acting quickly can stop the spread of complacency and reinvigorate the workforce.

How do you prevent workplace complacency?

Feedback is a powerful tactic for fighting complacency. Constructive criticism lays the foundation for reflection and positive change, but also assures staff that you are aware of the current situation. A reminder of workplace visibility is sometimes enough incentive for employees to ramp up performance and display model behavior.

Providing regular feedback is a good idea for two main reasons. Firstly, constructive criticism can prevent workplace complacency entirely, as reflecting and pushing for change can encourage a growth mindset among your team. Secondly, if you make a habit of giving regular feedback, then your team members will not feel singled out or confronted when you have notes.

Nurturing a culture of accountability is another effective defense. When leaders do not address rule-breaking or underperformance and do not praise initiative, employees may adopt a “nothing I do matters,” approach. Broken promises can lead to frustration and lack of trust among teams, undermining the team development process. The best way to avoid apathy is to follow-up actions with feedback. As a leader, you should seize learning opportunities that accompany mistakes and cheerlead your teams towards greatness.

Repetitive tasks can lead to stagnation, but change and learning are mortal enemies of workplace complacency. By shaking up the routine, you can snap your employees out of a trance and refocus the team. Cross training, running team building events, rotating point on projects, and incentivizing continued learning and development are all methods of keeping your staff active and engaged.

Here is a list of ways to motivate employees and our guide to improving company culture.

Final Thoughts

In the dynamic, ever-changing atmosphere of modern business, organizations that allow workplace complacency risk getting left behind. Adapting to shifting circumstances is a must for companies, yet complacent workplaces adhere to the mantra “this is how we’ve always done it.”

Pivoting allows organizations to stay healthy and relevant, and pivoting effectively depends on employees’ flexibility and willingness to change. Not to mention, complacency can affect a company’s overall performance and company culture. A quest for constant improvement creates meaningful work for employees, improved service and products for consumers, and better long term health for organizations.

For more tips on reaching your staff’s true potential, check out our article on team management skills.

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Author: Angela Robinson

Team building content expert. Angela has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked as a community manager with Yelp to plan events for businesses.

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