Only the Paranoid Survive: Overcoming Complacency

Oct. 4, 2019
Complacency is one of the “dirty dozen” human factors elements that puts aviation safety at risk.

Complacency is one of the “dirty dozen” human factors elements that puts aviation safety at risk. It’s a false sense of security brought on by overconfidence. Recognizing and mitigating it won’t just improve the quality of your work and keep you out of trouble, it can improve your professional and personal life.

Think about how you begin your day. You get out of bed, clean yourself up, eat breakfast, help other members of your family get ready and out the door, then head to work. Most of it is routine and automated. There’s not much conscious or deliberate thought required – except when there is. Think in the abstract about how complex it is to drive to work. You don’t consider the complexity because you’ve automated the task.

Our acclimation and ability to automate repetitive tasks are human traits that have made us successful as a species. We’re adaptable and can thrive in almost any environment, including dangerous or high-stress situations. Where we’re exposed to the same situation or the same tasks over and over, we get used to it and fall into a rhythm. But the resulting sense of comfort or satisfaction is a constant threat to our continued success. If nothing bad happens, we risk losing our edge … we become complacent. In the maintenance environment, this can mean you’ve done an inspection 100 times and never (or rarely) found unusual damage, so you let your guard down and stop looking for problems.

Ironically, your years of professional experience can actually work against you. There’s a concept called the “complacency paradox” described in 1981 by University of Miami scholar E. L. Weiner in a presentation to the Flight Safety Foundation:

“Complacency is caused by the very things that should prevent accidents, factors like experience, training and knowledge contribute to complacency. Complacency makes crews skip hurriedly through checklists, fail to monitor instruments closely, or utilize all navigational aids. It can cause a crew to use shortcuts and poor judgement and to resort to other malpractices that mean the difference between hazardous performance and professional performance."

Complacency means you stop worrying about the consequences of cutting corners and disregard your training. Don’t be paralyzed by fear about the potential consequences of your work; instead, use the fear to stay focused and sharp.

Complacency isn’t just a problem for individuals; organizations are also at risk. The impact can be felt throughout the company, from the shop floor to the executive offices, no matter how far apart the two are. The company might stop innovating, become slow to adopt technologies or adapt to new business trends, fail to grow new customer opportunities and generally fail to do what made it successful in the first place.

Technology is a factor. Yes, it can reduce workload and improve safety on the job. At home it can make your life easier and more enjoyable. However, we can also become overly reliant on technology, become overwhelmed and lose situational awareness when systems or tools don’t function properly.

Complacency is more than a professional hindrance, it can become one in your personal life. If you have everything you need, you may get too comfortable and lose motivation. You may start taking the quality of your life for granted and forget to do the things that made it that way in the first place.

Taking a larger view, our human tendency towards complacency poses issues for society as a whole. Professor Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, has gotten a lot of attention for a book he wrote called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, which came out in 2017. Cowen’s premise is that Americans are losing their dynamism and entrepreneurship and that complacency manifests itself in all parts of society.

Cowen cites a lot of data, including statistics showing we’re much less mobile as society, that we don’t move as much from state to state to seek new opportunities the way people did several generations ago. That decline in labor mobility has made it harder to start new businesses because you don’t have access to new workers and makes it harder for regions to recover from economic downturns because people are less likely to move from over-saturated labor markets.

It’s okay to be human – admitting the fact is essential, as we constantly underscore in ARSA’s human factors training sessions – but our natural tendency towards complacency is a threat you should recognize and constantly combat. Intel founder Andrew Grove’s guiding motto, and the title of his book on management, was that “Only the Paranoid Survive.” In the aviation industry, those are words to live by.


Christian A. Klein is the managing member of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, P.L.C. overseeing the firm’s policy advocacy practice. He represents trade associations as a registered federal lobbyist and provides strategic communications and legal counsel services to clients. He is executive vice president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association. Mr. Klein is a member of the University of Virginia’s adjunct faculty. To experience ARSA’s human factors training resources, visit