The Curse of Complacency

Recognize it and take corrective measures


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
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