Defeat Employee Complacency – Here’s how

Defeat Employee Complacency - Here's how

safety professional author Chontell Flight  By Chontell Flight – Certified Health & Safety Consultant

I once met a man who was an experienced sailor. He retired and decided to treat himself to a beautiful new speed boat. Only, once he launched in the local Marina, he noticed the watercraft filling with water. It hit bottom before its first voyage because he forgot to ensure the water plug was in place. Luckily, he was able to tow his boat out and remediate the damage – but I bet he will never make that mistake again!

Mistakes like the boating story happen far more often than you might think! As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Reflecting on the outcome of a situation often reveals more information to understand the root cause and to highlight contributing factors. Complacency can be like this too – it’s symptoms often appearing more evident in hindsight.

Incident investigations may reveal that some degree of complacency was present before the incident occurrence. In response or remediation to the incident, the immediate hazards become the primary focus while employers implement strategies with controls to mitigate risk; like initiating training programs or implementing corrective actions in response – with our focus primarily on the incident and immediate actions. But it is important to remember that foresight is a powerful tool – a skill that can be strengthened. Foresight teaches us to implement greater safety awareness – we need to be proactive in predicting what could happen, or what may be needed in the future.

It is all our duty to recognize the real-time hazards of complacency and to act toward mitigating that risk since it creates a quiet undertow of instability in our most routine tasks which can negatively affect productivity, quality, health, and safety.

What is complacency?

The official definition of complacency is ‘self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.’

In short, when we are familiar with a task or project, we assume the results of our actions will be repetitive, and equally alike. We are often at risk of becoming overconfident in the task, and experience decreased awareness of hazards as they arise. So, in some cases, unless something is glaringly hazardous – like a pink elephant enters the room, we are more likely to be unaware and miss smaller inconsistencies and dangers. These small inconsistencies can seriously add up to create a much bigger hazard with increased risk, with the possibility for a myriad of negative outcomes.

Getting complacent with hazard inspections can have terrible consequences – this equipment operator may have fallen victim to exactly that.

We are all at risk of experiencing complacent behavior in all our activities, including; at work, while participating in hobbies or when completing tasks, and especially while driving. In fact, experiencing complacency while driving can have serious (and often deadly) consequences. In a previous incident, a local flag person at a Canadian construction site was sent to hospital with head injuries after being hit by a car in the construction zone. However, this is not an isolated incident. This type of scenario transpires every day, all over Canada – and the world. Various contributing factors could be suspect in such an incident, but complacency being considered alone may have perpetrated aspects of the event from different parties. Some considerations to observe may include:

  • Oftentimes construction zone signs are not removed when the work is completed. For this reason (aside from possibly having a heavy foot), the vehicle operator may have assumed the work was not presently active.
  • Distractions: The vehicle operator may have been distracted by a myriad of things, including but not limited to personal stress or health, mobile phone, radio, music, other visual distractions (wildlife, other vehicles, etc.) on the roadway.
  • Distractions: The flag person may have been distracted from their task due to monotony, and not operating the signage as intended/directed, not recognizing active risks.
  • Fatigue/Tiredness of any involved parties may have contributed to the incident.

We all experience complacency – it’s simply human nature. Some roles that are at a higher likelihood of becoming complacent include; Experienced workers, those performing repetitive, routine, or dull tasks (operators, those on assembly or manufacturing lines).

Ladder safety is an area that far too many people overlook. Complacency in this area can easily lead to an injury or broken neck.

Types of Complacency

Broadly, there are various types of complacency which encompass:

  • Comfortable Complacency: When we become too comfortable, we are less likely to welcome change or to keep abreast of changing hazards.
    Accompanying terminology often communicates similarly to “we have our own little niche.” “We have always done it that way.” “We can postpone that project for the time being.” “We cannot increase sales, so we must cut costs.”

    When we take shortcuts to get to the end goal more quickly, or postpone things to avoid dealing with them, the problems do not simply disappear. In fact, cutting corners can often lead to a more hazardous outcome, lower quality product, or create new hazards. When we skip critical steps, we are often more likely to be unaware of the new risks, or substandard conditions, they create.

    This type of logic is often prevalent in smaller organizations.

  • Resistant Complacency: The ‘If something isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. The belief that we know everything there is to know, and not interested in learning anew.
    Accompanying terminology often translates as: “we are successful, we must be doing it right.” “We have nothing to learn”. “We have always done it that way.” “I cannot see what more can be done” “we are doing as well as anyone else.”

    Typically seen in long-term personnel who are resistant to change in their roles. Uninspired or unmotivated personnel. Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not mean there aren’t opportunities for improvement, to streamline processes’, and to master something new.

  • Urgent Complacency: Working under deadlines can create increased risk as workers are pressed to work faster, smarter, more efficiently, and sometimes beyond their capabilities. This is seen a lot in manufacturing, as personnel attempt to keep production pace with machines. Striving to meet deadlines may mean that safety hazards are overlooked and corners are cut, to fast track the project. The problem with this methodology is that it increases the risk of incidents and their severity, while potentially creating new risks or hazards that may wind up costing additional time, money, and energy to correct.

  • Greenhand Complacency: When a worker is new to a job or duty, they can be overwhelmed by all the steps of processes and lack confidence in performing new tasks and reporting. This can dilute the level of risk awareness due to the abundant amount of new information being absorbed.

    As you can see, effective complacency management means initiating uncomfortable change. Someone wise once said, “when you’re done learning new things, you’re dead”. A little brash, but this statement underscores the logic that there are always opportunities to learn, improve, grow and strengthen; ourselves, our teams, our families, and our culture – if we are motivated to thrive. Our goal should be to help personnel who are resistant to change, understand the foundational benefits, reasons for change, and improved outcomes to foster a stronger positive workplace culture.

  • Causes of Complacency

    What leads to complacency? Many factors contribute to complacent attitudes, some obvious examples include:

    • Shortcuts: skipping steps, overconfidence, lack of confidence, lack sense of responsibility.
    • Poor time management: scheduling, deadlines, pace.
    • Awareness to task: repetitive tasks, monotonous or dull tasks.
    • New to task: lack of knowledge, overstimulation of information, lack of confidence.
    • Focus: Mental wellness, stress (personal & professional, positive & negative).
    • Distractions: All types.
    • Health: Sleeping patterns, bad habits, poor diet, health conditions.
    • Unmotivated (‘laxly daze’) attitude.
    • Negative culture: bad attitudes, judgment, hazing, or otherwise.
    • Corrective actions: Not reported, improperly addressed, developed, or implemented.

    Failing to plan, is planning to fail

    Although it can be difficult to measure and recognize instances of complacency due to its intangible nature, a ‘carefree’ attitude or unplanned actions and efforts increase chances of occurrence. Other signs may demonstrate a person…

    • Appearing disengaged – meaning they are physically present, but not wholly mentally present.
    • Not thinking clearly or being ‘scatter brained’ – meaning they are potentially overcome/emotional or otherwise distracted.
    • Lack initiative to bring forth new ideas.
    • Lack motivation toward positive personal development or appear to have lost their passion.
    • Opting for shortcuts or being too hesitant/cautious/nervous.

    A person being careless and not following safety warnings while operating equipment.


    As with other hazards, there are risk controls we can put into action in an effort to reduce risk. Some of these things include; taking breaks between tasks or at timely intervals, breaking up monotonous tasks into parts or consulting with a team to identify and develop new ideas.
    Here are 10 creative ways to help combat complacency at work:

    1. Allot enough time / scheduling for the completion of tasks.
    2. Be clear and ensure all parties understand tasks/jobs assigned to them. Providing one-on-one training as a part of competency improvement.
    3. Have a detailed bullet-point plan for starting, progressing, and concluding tasks or projects.
    4. Each day the project begins again, involve personnel in the pre-job hazard assessment and encourage them to think strategically and evaluate the plan.
    5. Encourage personnel feedback to foster growth and promote positive culture. Reward participation with positive feedback.
    6. When incidents occur, ensure an in-depth investigation is completed to identify all contributing factors, identify corrective actions for improvement, implement those corrective actions, and follow up on their effectiveness.
    7. Utilize opportunities for learning improvements, system improvements, and hazard elimination.
    8. Correct unsafe actions or behaviors. Unsafe conditions fester when they are not addressed – similar to ignoring a credit card bill as it continues to accrue balance.
    9. Create reasonable expectations. Motivating personnel has a greater result when people understand their expectations and feel capable of meeting or exceeding them. Be cautious of setting expectations too low or too high, as this can have the opposite affect resulting in a negative morale.
    10. ‘Nip it in the bud’. Address complacency immediately when it is observed so that personnel do not learn bad behaviors (like taking shortcuts) from one another to complete tasks more quickly as this may lead to new or greater hazards.

    This man should be wearing fall protection while doing work over a significant drop – he may
    have become complacent to try to get the job done quickly.

    Solutions Anyone Can Use

    Some ways we can work to prevent complacency on an individual basis includes:

    • Personal development: identify personal areas of improvement and work toward strengthening those.
    • Data consumption: Upgrading safety training, reading interesting articles, watching personal development seminars, or reviewing industry incidents, are all examples of continuing education to help us become more refined.
    • Report. Report. Report. ‘It didn’t happen if it isn’t written down’ is a great perspective to maintain in order to ensure documentation is up to par. After all, we can’t manage what we don’t monitor.
    • Speak up! Don’t be afraid to share your questions or concerns with a supervisor or safety designate. Sometimes what one person says can be multiplied by what others are thinking but are afraid to say.
    • As you go about your tasks, consider the hazards that are not immediately present or visible. Are there steps or hazards you could be overlooking or taking for granted? What steps have you, or others, missed in the past? Consider past incidents and implement good use of foresight to determine what could happen. Familiarity breeds contempt, so it is important to ensure your comfort with the performed task does not create a lack of respect to the hazards therein.
    • Focus on what’s important: At the end of the day, we work to provide for ourselves and our families, so in order to ensure we go home safe at the end of each day we must take the responsibility to lookout for the safety of ourselves and others.
    • Ensuring your company forms and checklists used for inspection of workplaces, vehicles and heavy equipment are customized – too many of us use generic forms. If a form is built to specifically reflect the checks and balances on the equipment or area being inspected, it is more likely to promote greater attention to detail during those inspections.

      To offer perspective, Benjamin E. Mays reminds us ❝The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.❞


    How you do anything, is how you do everything

    This is how we should practice every task, every time. Approach tasks and duties as if it were your first time coming upon the circumstances. Imagine always approaching scenarios with a new set of eyes, eager to learn. The more ambitious we are to learn, the more observant we become. We should always aim to be ‘green and keen’. This great adage reminds us of the importance of continually learning and advancing.

    We can save ourselves a lot of headaches by slowing down, taking a deep breath, and assessing. Teaching ourselves to be aware, to make calculated decisions, and conducting assessments with greater attention to detail, can ensure we are more observant to items that might otherwise be missed. Commonly, complacency centers around assumptions – and calculated decisions cannot be made where assumptions exist.

    Chontell is a Certified Health & Safety Consultant at Rock Solid Safety Solutions with 10 years of industry experience and COR auditing expertise.
    Safety blogger & self-proclaimed safety nerd.

    ‘My goal is to foster interest in safety management using innovative and creative solutions to reduce risk and refine systems. To encourage and motivate personnel toward successful involvement in safety program customization, team building, and promoting a positive safety culture. I believe all people can offer constructive contributions toward safety management for the greater good.’


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