Thursday, June 11, 2015

It’s Time to Ditch ‘Complacency’

After an accident it’s not uncommon to hear the word “complacency” thrown around. Usually it’s the individual workers who got complacent and did something to cause the accident (like the workers who overflowed the tower in the BP Texas City Disaster). Sometimes it’s the organization that gets complacent and stops caring about severe risks and then a disaster happens (like NASA before the Challenger and Columbia disasters). This has led many in our profession to comment that complacency may be our biggest challenge. If one talks to CEOs of companies who appear to have a high safety commitment their employees becoming complacent often is a major concern of theirs. Some have even commented on complacency being a “silent killer” that is claiming thousands of lives every day.

What is complacency? Well, this is where things get a little fuzzy because there’s no really good definition of complacency. Looking at how the term is used, it ranges anywhere from a simple mental lapse or slip regarding risks, to the wanton disregard for human life. A common theme is not paying attention to a risk when the person should have. Usually it seems to have something to do with motivation – i.e., if only we cared more we wouldn’t be as complacent. It’s not really clear though what complacency even is because people use the term to apply in so many cases and contexts.

Does this confusion with the definition matter? Absolutely! We are making claims that say that complacency is leading to accidents that are killing people. Therefore we’d like to be able to identify complacency before an accident happens so we can do something about it. Pointing out after an accident that someone was complacent and that led to the accident may make for a great story, but it doesn’t really help us prevent the next accident.

Perhaps then if we dig a little deeper we can identify some of the relevant features of complacency that will help us identify it so we can eradicate this menace from our workplaces. So lets look closer at complacency and see what we can learn about how to fix the problem.

As we said above, complacency is often described as when someone is doing something potentially risk, isn’t paying attention to that, and is hurt or hurts others as a result. So, essentially, the person who is complacent is paying attention to something they think is important, but in reality there was something else (the risk) that was more important that they should have been paying attention to. Got it. Better tell this person to pay more attention next time. 

But wait, all of us go into environments with a myriad of potentially important things that we can pay attention to. However, we only have a very limited ability to pay attention to all of them. So people pay attention to the thing that they feel is the most important to them, which is often based on their idea of what the risks in a given environment are. If that assessment is wrong how is telling the person that they shouldn’t be so complacent going to help with that? It wasn’t like they chose to ignore the important thing that was going to hurt them or others. They chose to ignore something that they thought would not hurt themselves or others. There’s a huge difference there and in that difference is an opportunity for intervention.

Instead of using the complacency label to shift the blame to the worker, shouldn’t we be asking why there wasn’t anything in the environment that either prevented the worker from coming into contact with the risk in a situation where their attention is diverted, or why there wasn’t something that helped the worker attend to the right information?

Aren’t those things within our responsibility as leaders and safety professionals?

That’s the real problem with the idea of complacency – it makes it sound like the problem is in the person and therefore our solutions should involve changing the person (usually by telling them to pay more attention next time, to care more, etc.). But this is a gross oversimplification of what complacency is and it assumes that the worker is actively choosing to be complacent. People don’t choose to do things that they think will get them or others hurt, nor do they do things that they think will cause them to do a bad job. Instead, people do things that they think will help them be successful. So the idea that we can fix “complacency” by motivating our workers is misguided. Our workers are already motivated! This doesn’t mean that what they did is good or acceptable. But it does mean that telling them that they need to care more is demeaning and demotivating.

All of this doesn’t speak to the unspoken truth about complacency – that it often leads to safety and success. So if we did somehow eliminate it we may eliminate the good that the psychological and social processes that we call ‘complacency’ give us. As a basic example, complacency sometimes is described as someone doing something without thinking it through. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a habit? Aren’t habits good things in many cases? Imagine what your life would be like if you were to eliminate all habits. You’d have to think through every small detail. Not only would that be exhausting, your performance would degrade. You’d be less safe. So if we eliminate all “complacency”, we would make things worse.


It’s time the safety profession ditched the concept of “complacency.” We’ve all used it. We’re all guilty. But it’s time to change. “Complacency” is a term without a clear definition, that we really can only apply in retrospect (making it essentially impossible to use for prevention purposes), and it shifts the responsibility for safety solely on the worker when we all know that safety responsibility should be distributed throughout the organization. It’s lazy, plain and simple and it’s time that our profession grew up and found better ways to describe behavior.

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