Complacency Is a Company Killer

Co-authored by Devin Dash and Joey Brannon


Complacency is a company killer. It’s exactly what led Kodak to bankruptcy in 2012. What role did complacency play? Well, many years before its ruin Kodak snubbed the invention of their own engineer, Steven Sasson. He invented the digital camera technology in 1975, and rather than embracing the novelty, Kodak dismissed it. Who knows what led to Kodak’s complacency? The fact is, it crept into Kodak’s executive arm with disastrous effect.

Yet, despite this story and others like it, complacency still lingers unchecked in many organizations. I’ve heard words that make my ears burn: “I’m comfortable” and “it [the business] supports my lifestyle.” We’ve got to readjust our thinking. In this post, I define complacency, I share how to fight it, and I recommend a tool we use to guard against it?

Diagnosing complacency can be difficult. This is due to the fact that the feeling of complacency is private. Unlike a mechanical failure, a defiant employee, or product flop, complacency isn’t something we easily see. Its root is in the hearts of individuals and their motivation. Unless we are really introspective, we may not even notice it in ourselves. Additionally, we may mistake complacency for contentment. So, what is complacency?


By definition, complacency is a feeling of smug or uncritical approval of oneself or one’s own achievement. Complacency described simply is unhealthy satisfaction; it has two distinct characteristics.

Smugness: An owner wrestling with complacency is self-focused. Their desires, their comfort, awards, income, and other accolades make up their vision. It goes without saying this is dangerous. Purpose, in a company under complacent leadership, is individualistic, and short term.

Uncritical: Complacency is also uncritical. Another way of describing this would be self-affirming. This means someone who is complacent may not reflect on what brought them success. It’s linked with pride because it is a lack of personal criticism. A complacent person may still be critical of others.

Continuing with Kodak as our example, we see the presence of these two characteristics. The execs were riding a market share close to 80% in the U.S. and 50% globally. Surely this affirmed their status as accomplished executives and afforded them financial comfort. They failed to consider where innovation had brought them and were also critical of others, e.g. Sasson and his invention.


To avoid Kodak’s mistakes, it’s important to combat complacency. The best method against it is healthy dissatisfaction. Healthy dissatisfaction rival’s complacency because it’s the exact opposite. The key to embracing healthy dissatisfaction is living out two qualities: humility and discernment.

Humility: As one pursues healthy dissatisfaction, humility must be practiced. Humility means one simply considers themselves less. Humility guards us against satisfaction and dissatisfaction that is focused on self. This also shifts our focus to the business and enables us to more accurately and objectively gauge performance. Humility also encourages the pursuit of goals and achievements that are divorced from self interest.

Discernment: A healthy dissatisfaction requires discernment. This means we don’t live with our head in the clouds or buried in the sand. Rather, we seek to understand all the factors that lead to an outcome. One practical application of discernment is to examine and question the excellence, or shortfalls, of decisions. Without discernment, one risks being dissatisfied without knowing what to change, or satisfied without understanding what brought about success. Discernment enables growth by encouraging critical evaluation of options and opportunities rather than reliance on the status quo.


The best way to guard against complacency is to develop and execute a strategic plan. At Axiom, we help clients build one-page plans that foster both healthy satisfaction and healthy dissatisfaction. Plans are so effective because they:

  • Provide consistent direction

  • Define winning, and

  • Establish standards for accountability

  • Are made public and acted upon

The best plans demonstrate humility and discernment in each of these areas.

Consistent Direction: Every individual in a company should be able to say where the organization is going. Your vision is the answer.  A vision answers the question, “what is the projected future of the organization and its place in the world?” Answering this question will guard against complacency because it declares a purpose that is beyond serving any one individual and it does so in an innovative and intelligent way (i.e. it demonstrates both humility and discernment).

Winning: Just as every individual should be able to say where the organization is trying to go, every individual should know whether any progress is being made in that direction. A good plan will define what winning and losing look like. The best plans will do this with humility by defining a win as something other than a zero sum game (i.e. one person’s loss is another person’s gain). Those same plans will embody discernment by setting goals that, if accomplished, will lead to the attainment of the long term vision of the company.

Standards & Accountability: Things happen because individuals act. A plan helps communicate which individuals are responsible for which outcomes, and provides a basis for holding people accountable for their performance. The best plans apply to everyone, from the most junior employee to the most senior executive. In other words, everyone submits to the plan and demonstrates a measure of humility in doing so. The best plans require great discernment to engage every member of the organization and provide a basis for evaluating every individual’s performance.

Public Action: Plans are pointless without action. And action often has consequences that are hard to predict. This can be hard for teams. There is no guarantee of success. There will almost certainly be failure on some level. Ignorance will be revealed. Dirty laundry will be aired. Individual and group performance won’t always measure up. Such is the fate of teams that roll out plans and begin to act. The alternative, which happens quite often, is that individuals build their own plans with varying degrees of ambition or optimism and then either fail to act or do so privately outside the discerning eye of other team members.

It takes a great deal of humility to perform on the public stage where others can critique and pass judgment. In his speech before the Sorbonne in 1910 Roosevelt said it best, “There is no effort without error and shortcoming” [1]. Action requires the humility to fail publicly and the discernment to critique performance without succumbing to judgmentalism.

If you feel yourself sliding toward complacency cultivate a healthy dissatisfaction by thinking hard about what your company’s future should look like. What do you aspire to? That vision is the start of a great plan that if built and executed with great humility and discernment will reignite a passion for your work. And passion is anything but complacent.


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