The Curse of Complacency

Everyone experiences complacency. It invades areas once occupied by our passion, interest, desire, and focus. When complacent, the valued things that had captivated our thoughts, hearts, and energies tend to fade from priority and can even become mundane or the boring routine of everyday life. Burnout in our work life, loss of fire in relationships, and the lack of zeal for things we once held important are common experiences. The shame is not in complacency but in the failure to recognize it and take corrective measures to regain our footing.

It is easier to see complacency in others as we interact. Half-hearted service at an upscale eating establishment ruins an anniversary celebration. A burned-out college professor obviously grinding through another lecture causes the learning process to be painful and uninteresting. What went wrong? Has his thirst for knowledge dried up? Has complacency killed the passion and creativity he once possessed? In many cases the answer is yes.

Complacency can creep into the life of the musician whose music, once an expression of the soul, is just singing notes. It can impact the physician, the mechanic, the cook, and the preacher. The effects of complacency are much more serious than half-cooked food or warmed-over sermons. Our complacency kills the environment, it ruins our health, and it steals away our days, months, and years.

Complacency is identified as one of the “Dirty Dozen” of aircraft maintenance human factors. The Dirty Dozen are 12 identified human factors that lead to maintenance errors. Complacency is at the top of this list and is the deadliest of the 12. This is demonstrated by the tragic Aloha Flight 243 on April 28, 1988. Complacency with the state of aging aircraft was exposed as the cause of the accident and this event became the watershed accident that would bring much needed change.

Another unfortunate example of the effects of complacency can be seen in the Dryden Disaster, Air Ontario Flight 1363, March 10, 1989. The lack of safety procedures and bad weather drove the Fokker F28 into the ground immediately after takeoff. There was complacency at the regulatory level, and with a lack of parts.

Complacency in aviation circles is certainly not limited to the decades of the ’80s and ’90s. Complacency is alive and well today as experienced by pilots who take off on the wrong runways, inspectors who pencil whip, and mechanics who don’t use the checklists and current technical data.

The cause of complacency
Like a curse, complacency sometimes descends upon us unaware. It can be shaken off, but recognition of how complacency moves in and impacts our daily routine is important.
In the world of aircraft maintenance repetition can lead to complacency. The high degree of automation in modern aircraft and the processes involved in their operation can lead to a lax oversight of critical elements. Skill and knowledge are important components in the task of maintenance but they are open to complacency. Increased skill levels tend to lean toward repetition. Repetition lends itself to automation. Automation may result in the narrowing of focus and the loss of situational awareness. As knowledge increases and training curves flatten out confidence sets in. Before long, tasks are being performed in a mental autopilot mode. This is called automaticity, which is the act of processing without awareness, the performance of a task without attention to the details. Our skill sets and knowledge base form our experience, which offers the opportunity for complacency to creep in unaware. The battleground for this type of complacency is primarily mental.

There are three primary factors that encourage the physical side of complacency. They are:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Too many things happening simultaneously
  3. Too few things happening

Mental workload limits impact one’s ability to pay attention. First, workload resources may be pushed beyond their reasonable limit. If too many things are happening at the same time, that person has to divert his or her attention from one task to another. He or she can be “spread thin.” This situation leads to reduced attention and/or selective focus. At the same time, a person may have too little to do. A situation may seem boring, with little activity occurring. Or a task may seem routine, having been done by a person a hundred times before. Because of the mechanic’s vast experience, repetitive performance of the same task commonly leads to a more automated approach. Fatigue compounds the problem. A mechanic may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of too many tasks. Conversely, the same mechanic may lack focus and diligence as a result of too few tasks. An inspector tasked to inspect rivets on the top of a large aircraft may fall prey to monotony. The same inspector may be tired, overworked, and in a cold hangar where the lighting is inadequate. Each of these individually or in some combination can impact the inspector’s performance. Fatigue further exacerbates the situation and complacency sets in.

The cure for complacency
The first step in curing complacency is to practice the art of creative tension. In some ways humans are like rubber bands. Sometimes we need to relax and other times we need tension. For the most part we should live, work, and play in an in-between state called creative tension. Creative tension is like shooting a rubber band — stretch, aim, and fire. If there is a lack of tension the rubber band flubs and falls short of its mark. Pull too hard or create too much tension and the rubber band snaps! But with the right tension and a good aim the rubber band will find its target.

Likewise, when you lower your vision or lower your goal there is not enough creative tension to pull you toward your target. You flub, wallow, fishtail, but you never get to your goal. The other side of the coin? Too much tension can create a sense of being overwhelmed and some people shut down, others snap. With the proper tension there is a natural resolution of the tension between where you currently are and where you want to go. So, the goal is to live in that state of healthy tension with a constant state of forward movement. The balance of tasks results in peak performance and protects against the extremes of ”too much or not enough.” Proper task management takes into account the complexity of operations, skill, and knowledge sets in addition to the mechanic’s experience.

Second, rediscover passion for your work. Passion and desire go hand in hand and they are directly linked to creative tension. If you have passion and desire you will have creative tension. Rediscover the passion by setting new goals that will stretch you into creative tension. If you are tired of your profession, feel worn out, and possibly on the backside of the learning curve — you may need a jumpstart. Setting new goals, taking on new tasks, learning new skill sets are the jumper cables that can rekindle passion for your work.

Third, release the power of repetition. Think of the power of repetition in the golf swing. A good golfer practices — they practice a lot. Practice, or repetition, produces muscle memory and a swing becomes somewhat automated. You want to ensure your swing is correct — producing the right results or you may end up replicating a slice every time you drive the ball. Avoid replicating bad habits. Instead release the power of repetition which results in an increase in skill level. A certain amount of automation is to be expected in a seasoned mechanic. But experience exudes confidence which in turn is an opening for complacency to step in. So, beware. The goal is optimal results. These are found in the top of the performance curve, where there is balance and awareness.

There is one final strong hedge against complacency. Using current technical data and checklists will help ensure maintenance tasks are done properly and in order.

Dr. Terry Tolleson is the founder of Blue Tuna Training and Documentation in Rockwall, TX. For more information on Blue Tuna’s human factors training visit