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The Curse of Complacency

Webster defines complacency as “a feeling of being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better.” While this definition suggests that the individual being complacent has a feeling or opinion, they may in fact just not care. They are probably in a who cares, can’t change it anyway frame of mind.

Over the years I have formed a behavioral theory by observing the people with whom I came in contact. What I have found is people tend to exhibit one of three types of behavior; reactive, proactive or complacent. What I found, concluded, was that when viewed on a bell curve reactives and proactives are at distinct ends and complacents are in the middle. For example, someone who is totally complacent all the time would be at the top of the curve and someone who is more reactive but sometimes complacent would fall toward the left of the curve. Someone who is reactive has a very low likelihood of exhibiting proactive behavior.

When you consider each behavioral type by size you see at the far left of the bell curve the reactives who account for 8 to 10% of the total population. In the middle of the bell curve you find the complacents and they account for approximately 85% of the population. This leaves the proactives, and probably the most important group to any organization, only accounting for 5 to 7%.

How would you characterize the people you know and where on the bell curve would you place them? On your bell curve, maybe the complacents are not 85%. What is your number? Is it 75, 65, whatever it is, I guarantee you it’s over 50%. When we think about the problems we face as a society at both the micro and macro level, and ask why aren’t these issues being addressed, why can’t we find solutions, the answer is really very simple, too many complacents. The curse of complacency is most probably the single biggest reason for poor decision-making, high unemployment and a lack luster economy.

At the risk of generalizing, everyone I talk with seems to agree (irrespective of political beliefs) that our legislators are dysfunctional to say the least. While it varies by voting district, municipality, state or at the federal level think about the number of people who are eligible to vote versus those who actually get out to vote. Legislators are elected by a minority of people with a clear vested interest which in most cases is not shared the majority.

Why do you think voting districts are so contrived and who drew them up that way? And more important why do we the people allow it to happen? The curse of complacency. You may or may not like the politics of the Koch brothers and their various organizations but they are classic proactives. They understand what it will take to further enrich themselves and through whatever means necessary take advantage of the complacents to achieve their goals. Do you think that Citizen’s United just happened?

The curse of complacency can be seen everywhere and without much searching. Whether it is a company whose Board of Directors chooses to let a CEO operate without proper oversight to the local charitable board who feel they must let the executive director do what they think is best when they know otherwise. Or a Home Owners Association who can’t get owner involvement even when poor decisions are being made. Why has bullying in schools become so pervasive? The proactive bully survives in a group of complacent students and school officials.

To further understand the curse of complacency let’s take a look at reactives and the fact that there are twice as many reactives as proactives. A reactive is a person who wants to get something done whether it’s right or wrong or whether there are facts to support their decision or action. Their operating procedure is to look important, be decisive and move as quickly as possible. In the business context the reactives comes to work, sees what needs to get done that day and makes basic yes or no decisions so they can move on to the next “decision”. Reactives are often confused with the “movers and shakers”. That leaves us with a small group of proactives who do care, who do want to make a difference and do make things better.

No matter what organization or institution, whether private or public, having a complacent or reactive leader can be a very dangerous thing. The proactives, as few of them as there are, get drowned out or driven out. They have a tendency to give up and move on. To find a place where being proactive is an advantage. (Can you think of a true entrepreneur who is not proactive?)

Think about all the organizations that impact your life and ask yourself if that organization is being led by a proactive person. Years ago I had the benefit of listening to a presentation by Peter Drucker, clearly the dean of management thinkers. At the end of his presentation a person in the audience asked, “how do I get my management to embrace the innovative techniques you have just described?” Mr. Drucker look directly at the person asking the question and said, “find new management.”

If we want a better America, a better place for our children and grandchildren, then we must think about how the complacents and reactive people who are in decision-making roles are affecting us. Whether they are the president of our homeowners association, the mayor of our town, our congressman, senator or president, the management where we work or the charitable organization where we volunteer, we collectively need to be asking are those people being proactive and working to achieve an agreed to objective. If the answer is no then collectively we must find someone who does..

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