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Complacency in the Workplace: Overcome Bad Attitudes With Accountable Leadership

By Lisa Woods (1525 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on February 1, 2013

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Those annoying words are like scratches on a chalkboard. “This is the way we always do it.”  Can you image living life with that attitude?  You would never grow, improve or try new things…what a boring life!  In business, boring companies don’t grow their revenue, they don’t make continuous improvements to their products, processes, or services, and they are certainly NOT innovators.  So how do you lead an organization that has an attitude problem, without coming across with your own bad attitude in response?  The answer…you can overcome complacency in the workplace by implementing “Accountable Leadership”.  This article defines what that means, as well as actions you can take to implement it in your organization.


First let’s discuss 4 Reasons Why Bad Attitudes Exist:

Understanding may provide some perspective on how to change things.


1) Changes At The Top


Leadership changes happen more often than employee changes do.  When management changes, so do rules, expectations, projects, etc.  Employees get frustrated having to prove themselves again and again without any acknowledgement of past accomplishments.  History fades when new management arrives.  Pretty soon employees give up making new efforts because they realize that concealing themselves in a bubble of certainty is the only thing they have to maintain some control in their job and their livelihood.  It is like putting a brick wall between themselves and change.


2) History Of Bad Decisions


There has been a history of negative change in the company: layoffs, facility closings, poor leadership, and cronyism. Trust diminishes through these events and employees stop paying attention.  They just want to get paid and go home because nothing they contribute matters.



3) Inconsistency From Management


Failed ideas, lack of follow-through on new programs, too many system workarounds to get things done, lots of meetings, reports and talk without any constructive action taken by management.  Employees feel overworked and underutilized by inconsistency.  By holding onto what they can control, they maintain some consistency.



4) Message Disconnect


The company’s vision may be known within the management team but does not go any further.  Employees don’t embrace the new path because they don’t know it, or don’t understand it.


These four examples show a common thread that leads to complacency: FEAR!  When employees fear change, change cannot occur.  So as a leader or manager facing complacent employees, understanding and eliminating the fear is your top priority.  This is not an easy task, and may involve addressing all four of the reasons listed above.  But at the end of the day, if you acknowledge the fear, you will be able to build trust and create a new companywide culture of positive change, growth and innovation.



This is where “Accountable Leadership” comes into play. 


The Meaning of Accountable Leadership is Three-Fold:


1)Eliminating Fears

2)Implementing a Cultural Shift

3)Ensure Fears Don’t Return


1)   Leadership must hold itself accountable for eliminating fears felt throughout the organization by focusing on identifying it, acknowledging it, discussing it and overseeing specific organizational changes to annihilate it.  This is not something you can assign as a project to someone else.  If you want to identify the problem, then you need to start listening to people, at all levels of your organization, in one-on-one discussions.  Talk to them in their environment, not yours, or in a casual conference room setting if they don’t have the privacy to discuss openly in their work area.  Use the four reasons discussed above to start dialog and work to understand what they have gone through.  Empathize and ensure them that you are dedicated to improving the work environment AND the future of the company.


  1. By leading this effort yourself, you are making a very strong statement that you are committed.

  2. Listen, repeat to prove you understand, and do not make any promises beyond your commitment to an overall improvement.

  3. It is very important that when you are finished conducting your internal evaluation that you have a structured improvement plan that can be well communicated on a consistent basis.  That improvement plan should address the four causes of fear listed above.


2)   Leadership must hold all management and employees accountable for implementing a cultural shift from the gut wrenching “This is the way we always do it!” to “Does this make sense to you?”  Those six beautiful words can change everything if they become the cultural norm. 


  1. Everything should be questionable.  Managers should question their employees and employees should question themselves.

  2. Maybe training is required, maybe redundancy should be eliminated.  Just make sure there is an expected environment where employees can make suggestions, justify them and offer new solutions for positive change.

  3. Managers should document the positive changes in their department and share the success across the hierarchy and work silos.  Success and cultural improvement can be contagious.  Your complacent culture should shift to a competitive one…who can make the most positive improvements with impactful results?


3)   Now that you have identified the problem(s) and started a positive, accountable cultural shift, be cognoscente that you don’t develop your own complacency with the changes you’ve made.  Instead, develop programs that ensure fears don’t return.  These programs can include:


  1. A consistent employee review system with management trained to implement it effectively.

  2. A lessons learned/continuous improvement program with a focus on replacing old ways with new ones.

  3. A commitment to replace management that does not represent the new culture BEFORE you replace employees who work for them.

  4. Identify and publish key objectives and metrics the entire company understands and can follow to judge success.  Make sure these are a hybrid of business results and achieving cultural goals.

  5. A consistent communications plan to include items such as a monthly /quarterly newsletter, town hall meetings, PowerPoint presentations to be consistently given throughout the company, just to name a few.  The important point is consistency.  Create a plan that employees come to expect for updates.

  6. Follow-up on initial employee discussions to ensure they have been addressed, as well as understand if additional fears exist.



Your biggest challenge to making this work is getting your management team to buy in and work with you.  Here is a tip to increase your odds of success.


Set a timeframe for management to buy into your effort.  One thing that repeatedly worked for me was to meet with each manager and guarantee nobody would lose his or her job for six months.  Outline the expectation over that six-month period, and set up a three-month review to ensure you are both on the same page.  At the end of the six months, you either have a very engaged team, or you have fairly identified which members need to go.  By that time it is a mutual decision.  After your strong team is established, they can have the same conversation with each of their employees and so on.  The message this sends throughout the organization is very powerful.  Clarity, commitment, communication, and accountability all pointing to positive change…this is what you and your organization want…you can lead them there.



At the end of the day, we all change jobs, we all move on from our company at some point.  But as a leader, if you can shift your culture from complacency to a “does this make sense” environment, you will create a new bubble of certainty employees will fight to maintain.  That is a legacy everyone can be proud of.


Good Luck!




Written by Lisa WoodsPresident & CEO ManagingAmericans.com

Lisa is a successful entrepreneur, world-class marketing strategist, dynamic business leader & author with more than 20 years experience leading, managing and driving growth in the corporate world. Today she provides Management Tools, Do-It-Yourself Training, and Business Assessments for small to mid size companies, Lisa utilizes her experience with integration techniques, organizational and cultural overhauls, financial turnarounds and strategic revitalization to help other companies succeed.  Closing the gap between strategy and hierarchy through the use of effective communication skills, Lisa's techniques successfully develop employees into exceptional leaders, results driven managers and passionate team contributors that collectively exceed objectives.


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Discover & Unlock the True Potential of Your Organization

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Comments (8)

Art Jones posted on: February 1, 2013

Article is spot on! I appreciate it.

Timothy Cripps posted on: February 1, 2013

I am working with an agency that is political and dysfunctional at the top.

Step 1: Meet as a group at least once a month to reaffirm the direction of the company. (Very basic right?)

Step 2: Give some clarity to a large group of staff who long for it.

There are still about 4 more components that I want to implement, but there is nowhere to go but up.

Scot Steele posted on: February 1, 2013

We implemented a leadership forum at the individual contributor level. We started with the project leaders that had the most potential and had them read several leadership topic books over the year. we brought them together for reviews of the materials and leadership exercises. While we are still assessing the impacts, feedback from the participants is positive

Heather Stone posted on: March 7, 2013

Hi Lisa,
There's certainly something great leaders can do about complacency. And it doesn't involve sitting around in a conference room urging employees to be more passionate. There are probably reasons your employees don't care. Figure out sooner rather than later and fix it.

Lisa Woods posted on: March 7, 2013

Hi Heather, thanks for your comment. I agree, finding out why is the hard part but worth the effort in order to address the real issues that exist.
Take care,

Evan posted on: March 7, 2013

Recently I came across some good youtube interviews about leadership. It was a great experience. Thanks for the post! it is always really inspiring to read a good structured and common sense posts from yuo!

Lisa Woods posted on: March 7, 2013

Thank you Evan, I appreciate your feedback!

Avanish posted on: July 22, 2013


Lisa, your blog addresses the real situation we all face in the Corporate world, is crisp and spot on. You have touched all major points that leads to complacency at work place and have provided the best resolutions on how to avoid it.

Impressive writing.


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