Leading People: When Success Breeds Mediocrity

When it comes to leading people, I am disturbed by complacency. And mediocrity. I don’t know why it surprises me, because it’s so common in business organizations, but it does. What disturbs me most is when complacency comes disguised as success.

Here’s what I hear: some business leaders are telling me their business is actually healthy because they’re meeting their goals and numbers.

  • Their teams are working well together.
  • Nobody is in disagreement.
  • They’re growing 10% a year (or whatever their magic number is).

Puhlease! Wake up, at least enough to get ready for real success. What if your business could be growing 50%?

Unfortunately, some business owners and entrepreneurs live in delusional memories of success and are unaware they are dangerously close to complacency. The problem is that as humans, we simply like our well-established routines too much.

While any percentage of business growth is something to be proud of in these times, I see too often how it can lure one into routines to keep on doing what’s been working.There’s no sense of urgency and a false sense of security.

Now that would be fine, except you can’t count on anything staying the same long enough. And, at some point, the health of your organization will impede your growth. You have both internal and external changes going on all around you all the time.

Here’s what you should look for to spot complacency in your organization:

  • No disagreement or alternative options being suggested
  • No meaningful dialogue among teams
  • Is there enough trust to enable unfiltered communication?
  • Do team members hold each other accountable?
  • Do the team members put the organization’s needs ahead of their own department?
  • Can every employee from the CEO down to the janitor accurately articulate the company’s brand promise (what they stand for)?

The problem with complacency is that it sets the stage for boredom and disengagement. If you’re content with mediocrity, then I suppose that’s okay. It’s certainly comfortable and unrisky. But not for long.

I’m not advocating a false sense of urgency whereby you shake people up with fear and deadlines. Busyness isn’t going to cure it.

Complacency is much more common than we think. In the current economic climate, you’d think that people would be too worried about job security to be complacent. Sadly, the consequences of complacency seldom make a blip on their occupational radar.

People gravitate toward doing whatever alleviates their anxieties and worries, and they will go to great lengths to avoid discomfort. This usually means “Don’t rock the boat. Hang onto what used to work.” It’s  human nature to cling to the familiar.

Often, complacency is invisible to managers and leaders, as well as the employees in its grip. You, too, may be complacent and not even realize it. That’s because success produces complacency and, for peace of mind, we often focus on success instead of our failures or gaps.

I found this neat graph in John Kotter’s book A Sense of Urgency and share it with you here:


What do you think about this? Makes sense to me, but I’d love to hear your experiences with complacency vs. urgency.