Today I embark on a four part blog series focusing on (i) Complacency, (ii) being Complicit, (iii) having Courage and (iv) Confidence. In the first part I will reflect on what it means to be complacent and the dangers associated with it.
Complacency means a ‘feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger, trouble or controversy’. As per custom the idea for this blog came from one of those innocent conversations I had with an old friend while waiting for lunch to be served. We were discussing about what sets others apart from their peers. Is it just genius, being at the right place at the right time or something more? I know that others like Malcolm Gladwell have already dismissed the genius argument and instead convincingly suggest that there are a number of other factors that explain success at anything, such as keeping a happy marriage, running a marathon, owning a business, etc. As human beings we need a suitable ecosystem that allows us to develop/nurture our talents. Others like me would add spiritual aspects such as faith, or let’s just call it ‘that internal fire that wakes you up early in the morning’ or the willpower to pick up the pieces and move to face the daily grind. Let’s be honest; parents, extended family and others can only do so much but the rest is up to you.
I had the privilege of attending school with some of the most brilliant minds in Zimbabwe- people who would ace Cambridge University’s Advanced level examinations. For some of us who always looked average, it was as if these super-smart humans would go on to conquer the world. Has that been the case? Not always. So, what explains average accomplishments- I am not looking at explaining success- but am instead interested in understanding why people settle for average? The argument I made to my friend at lunch was that our challenge is to feel easily satisfied. It was just an honest and harmless response. But then I spent more time thinking about it afterwards- what does it mean?
Let me start off by explaining that as human beings we are prone to minimize labour/effort- and that mostly explains the technological advances we have made- to reduce effort. Think about the remote control- to reduce the time you have to take standing up and changing channels, volume and other settings. Think about the microwave meals…the list goes on. But let me take this analogy further- we excel at school so that we avoid finding ourselves working in overalls, digging trenches, etc., but can instead have high paying jobs in good offices. So, after getting the good job, then what? Most of us make family decisions and here we settle- happy and content- waiting for promotion or just collecting the paycheck. In the process we neglect the initial fire/willpower that propelled us to where we are right now. In other words the proverbial ceiling is self-imposed- we have settled and become content or better still complacent about the need to continue developing the talent/skills that brought us to where we are. This leads to stagnation and, before you know it, the deal is done- you are a candidate for retrenchment. I know this could be over simplified but allow me to build my case.
The same follows in relationships- we spend a lot of time checking in on each other in the initial days, but once you have the ring something changes, and this applies to the sisters and brothers alike. Once she/he is yours a new process of decay sets in. We do not nurture the relationship and violate all the rules of relationship building. The new refrain is “Oh I forget, Oh I am too tired, Oh we do not have the money for that, etc…” We take each other for granted and slowly we undo what took years to establish and before you know it- you are just tolerating each other, and if you are more honest than the rest of us, you proceed to the letter D.
At organizational level the same laws do apply- the founder(s) starts off with a big clear vision and equally abundant zeal to establish something that will serve an external purpose- to change the world (it could just be his village but still it is external). For the record, most successful organizations (business/non-profit) have a very clear external vision first before clarifying the internal structure. Over time however there emerges a need to rein in on the entrepreneur’s energy by establishing rules, processes and systems. New language emerges ‘… organizational structures, efficiency and effectiveness, team building, sustainability etc’- these are all focused on the internal processes. Slowly the organization finds itself devoting more time to internal processes at the expense of conquering the external environment. Before you know it, the organization begins to emphasize new ways of doing things that prioritize its own survival at the expense of the challenges in the environment and in the process decay sets in, it becomes complacent about customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. For us in the non-profit sector- we become complacent about the constituencies we are meant to serve- all of a sudden, we place more emphasis on the internal ones than on the external environment.
So what is my point? Complacency. It is a natural condition amongst human beings- we take for granted what we think we know/have conquered. Somebody put it this way ‘uptake is easy but we never plan for management/maintenance of what we have’. You can spend a long time putting together resources to buy a house, but after acquiring it rarely do you set aside resources for its maintenance. Many times we are bad at what I will call ‘repeat investing’ into the essential ingredients for success. At an individual level we tend to neglect the habits of success, hard work, discipline and that brought us to where we are- who read a book from back to back in the last 3 months (not a novel about your work), or who took a self-improvement course in the last six months? Just be honest! We have settled without realizing that there is nothing settled in the universe-everything is in motion. Instead, what you have just begun is a process of decay-if it is not giving life, it is dying-even maintenance requires effort.
In relationships, we take each other as a given- we communicate less, we listen less- our partners become a part of the furniture that has to be managed instead of someone to share life with and continue to appreciate. We become complacent and before we know it the fire dies and the brave ones move on to seek what they initially received from us. If you are married, when was the last time you went on a date with your partner- I am just asking?
In organizations, the same laws do apply. We spend the first seven years building a formidable unit focused on changing what is outside of the organization- this applies for both private for profit and non-profit institutions. Many organizations that pass the 7 year mark are the ones with a clear external goal. The hurdle is the ability to renew the organization after the first 7 years to create a balance between the internal (unavoidable) bureaucracy that will have emerged and at times is disconnected from the aspirations/spirit of the founder(s) and the constantly changing external environment. The most common trap for many organizations is to look within and in the process take the external environment for granted- that’s why we hear of reduced market share, strengthening of new entrants (which are taking advantage of their 7 year entrepreneurial cycle) and obsolete products/services- due to failure to adequately understand the environment. These issues cut across sectors. Non-profits face similar challenges- we start off with a compelling vision and strategy and receive significant support (especially from funding partners), we run our course for at least 7 years and then questions begin to emerge about our sustainability and the effectiveness of our processes. The new strategies, if not adequately balanced, may devote energy towards strengthening and making the internal team happy without an adequate reading of the external environment. This partly explains why non-profit institutions, just like their for-profit counterparts have a very limited life cycle, unless they create an adequate balance between the requirement for effective processes and adequate understanding of the external environment. At times the changes have to be radical- akin to burning the house in order to rebuild it. Sadly, enough, many leaders do not have courage (see the forthcoming blog on courage) to carry out such necessary changes and instead complacently depend on past successes without an adequate appreciation of the changes that are taking place in the environment.
Complacency therefore is a very present reality and a danger in every situation where human beings are involved. Yet, we often do not see it creeping in. It is the natural state of an average achiever and the greatest enemy to ascending into greater heights. I have seen many others overcome complacency. Successful football managers such as Jose Mourinho, Alex Fergusson and many others who have won championships worked very hard to ensure that their teams do not fall into the trap of being over confident and disrespecting the opponents. Half the time we settle when we have not really begun the journey meant for us. There are lives to be mended, organizations and new processes/way of doing things and nations to be built if only we could dare more and be destiny oriented!