Combat Complacency to Make Change Happen

You would think bad business results are enough to shake people out of complacency. But approximately 50 percent of companies fail to establish a sufficient sense of urgency to succeed in their transformation efforts, according to John Kotter, author of Leading Change and A Sense of Urgency.

People in organizations are entrenched in maintaining the status quo, even in the face of devastating news such as:

  • Shrinking margins
  • New competition
  • Decreasing market share
  • Flat earnings
  • Lack of revenue growth
  • Declining competitive position
  • Global economic recession

In spite of bad news, getting people to change and motivating them to participate in change initiatives are major problems. Starting a transformation program requires full-bore cooperation from many individuals. And without sustained motivation, people won’t stay with the program long enough to get results, so the effort goes nowhere.

Executives underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones, even when these  zones lack security. Management also overestimates its success in creating a culture of urgency—the element that may, in fact, be the most important contribution to transformation efforts.


When you fail to create a sense of urgency, your people will be unwilling to take the critical leap toward an uncertain future.

Here are some questions to test the effectiveness of your company’s change program:

  • How high is managers’, peers’ and workers’ sense of urgency?
  • How do you know this?
  • If it’s too low, why?
  • What exactly are you doing to change this?
  • If you cannot change the level of urgency, what are the consequences for your organization? How about your career?

At the beginning of any change effort, of any magnitude, leaders fail when the organization’s sense of urgency is lacking. This leads to a variety of difficulties, pain, disappointment and that distressing 70 percent statistic.


Complacency is much more common than we think. People gravitate toward doing whatever alleviates their anxieties and worries, and they will go to great lengths to avoid discomfort.

Often, complacency is invisible to managers and leaders, as well as the employees in its grip. You, too, may be complacent and not even realize it. That’s because success produces complacency and, for peace of mind, we often focus on success instead of our failures or gaps.

This problem is augmented by our tendency to replace a true sense of urgency and purpose with frantic activity and unfocused anxiety—what we call a false or misguided urgency.


When organizations suffer from a false sense of urgency, they experience a great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger and frustration. There’s activity, but little focused determination to win—and to do so as soon as possible.

With false urgency, you will frequently witness:

  • Running from meeting to meeting
  • Sending lots of emails
  • Writing unnecessary reports
  • Juggling lower priorities
  • Compulsively making lists that are never completed

The danger here is that participants and observers actually believe their increased activity is productive.


Communications are critical to creating engagement and building a true sense of urgency. To that end, here are four steps for creating buy-in, courtesy of John Baldoni (Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders).

1. Inform. Explain the situation in general and specific terms. Generality provides context; specifics provide expectations. For example, make the case for your initiative, ask people to support it and tell them why it’s necessary.

2. Involve. Once people understand the facts and what’s expected of them, they will decide whether to participate. Critical to gaining commitment is communicating “what’s in it for me?” (WIFM). You must make the specifics clear and demonstrate what people will gain by supporting your initiatives.

3. Invite. Once people understand what’s expected of them, ask for their support. Never assume people will follow you until you ask them to do so. Be specific and persistent: “Can I count on your support for this initiative?”

4. Ignite. This final step is not always possible, but it separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. You must try to take individuals’ commitment and transform it into a collective willingness to work toward a cause greater than themselves. Excite their imaginations by talking about what will happen when your initiative is a success.


Familiarize yourself with these five common barriers to change so you can stay on track:

  1. Ownership: It’s easier to pass the buck than to stand up as a leader and take over responsibilities that may not even be yours.
  2. Time: Change always takes longer than estimated. Add 50 percent to 100 percent more time to your expectations.
  3. Difficulty: When a task appears to be easy, you may set yourself up for disappointment and frustration if you miscalculate the time required to complete it. Anticipate troubles, and give yourself credit for small victories.
  4. Distractions: When the going gets tough, as it will, it’s easy to be distracted by competing goals, other interests and priorities. Anticipate how easily you can become distracted; you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to regain your focus.
  5. Maintenance: Once you expend all of the effort needed to achieve a change goal, be willing to face reality. It takes time for the new to become habitual. Give up too soon, and you’re back to square one. Maintenance requires vigilance and perseverance—more than you may think.