IT leadership: Why job complacency sets in and how to fight it

When you're in the same role for several years, it's easy to become complacent. But once a CIO recognizes complacency – in themselves or others – they can shape a positive outcome
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Early in my career, a company executive and founder told me that I had grown complacent. Those words stung, and I have never forgotten them.

The dictionary defines complacent as “marked by self-satisfaction, especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” If we apply that definition to an employee, it means the person is comfortable and satisfied with their output and performance, but in reality, their performance is subpar or modest in growth.

My boss’s words stung. But they also made me stronger.

Ouch. Now you understand why my boss’s words stung. But they also made me stronger, and I ended up staying with that company for many years.

While complacency can be a career killer, it can also have positive effects if you know how to manage it. When CIOs and IT leaders start recognizing complacency (either in themselves or in their team members), it often means that they or their employees are ready for a change or need new challenges. It’s what you do after you identify complacency that determines whether it leads to a positive outcome.

Being complacent doesn’t mean that you are a bad employee or that you are not right for your role. Throughout our careers, we all encounter natural peaks and valleys, and a little complacency is okay. Operating at 110 percent all the time leads to burnout. But operating at 70 percent for long periods of time isn’t healthy either. The key to avoiding extended periods of complacency is to recognize it and do something about it.

[ Remote work requires extra care with change management. Read also: Digital transformation in the remote work era: 11 do's and don'ts. ]

Understand the four-year itch

When you start a new job, you will naturally be focused and eager to learn new skills. The last thing you want to do is make your new boss wonder why they hired you.

The first step to countering complacency is to admit that it is a normal process and is a sign that you are getting better at your job.

As you become more skilled and efficient, you also become more productive and more valuable to the organization. At the same time, the role generally becomes easier, requiring less effort than when you first started. This is a good thing; it reaffirms that your boss made a good decision by hiring you.

For example, say you are hired for a systems engineer or a technical sales role. Your level of confidence and comfort should continue to increase for up to four years or so as you get really good in your role. (Of course, every employee and role is different and the four-year timeframe may vary, but this is a common pattern to be aware of.)

When challenges and opportunities to learn and grow diminish, this is usually where complacency sets in.

Not sure if the signs are there? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time I took any significant training?
  • Do I still practice and hone my skills to improve?
  • Do I seek feedback after a project or presentation?

The first step to countering complacency is to admit that it is a normal process and is a sign that you are getting better at your job. The art of this is understanding that when you are too complacent, you are not operating at your highest possible level. Identifying complacency early helps you anticipate and make corrections along the way.

Here are seven signs of complacency to look for in yourself or your team members:

  • Less creativity and innovation
  • Lack of passion and excitement 
  • Working less and investing less effort
  • Expressing more negativity
  • Career planning and goal setting take a low priority
  • Training and self-improvement activities have slowed or stopped
  • Performance and job results could be better

How to prevent complacency

As an IT leader, you need to ensure that you are in the best possible position to take care of your team, and that means avoiding complacency in yourself as well as recognizing the signs in others. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Pursue training that can lead to new areas of responsibility
  • Increase the scope and breadth of existing roles to create additional challenges and growth opportunities
  • Ask for advice from your supervisor or a mentor

Remember, as a leader, you represent the entire company, not just your team. Helping an associate find another role, even if it’s outside of your team, can add value to the entire organization. It’s important to recognize that helping a talented employee transition to a new role where they can be more fulfilled is an act of leadership.

Countering the complacency trap early and using it as a change agent can result in positive change for you, your team, and your organization.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Bob St. Clair
Bob St. Clair is a Chief Architect leading Red Hat's IBM Synergy and Alliance team for North America, where he collaborates with sales and technical leadership at Red Hat and IBM to support sales strategy and go-to-market opportunities. A longtime Red Hatter, St.