The Culture of Complacency

Organisations change constantly. For one thing, staff come and go. Retirement, promotions, transfers, new hires, and even internships all change its fabric. And even when the same people work there day in and day out, each of them gets a little older and, we hope, a little wiser. What that means is that your organisation is dynamic. It won’t remain the same because it can’t.

Some managers have resigned themselves to this and have adopted an age-old strategy for dealing with it. They ignore it. They pretend that it isn’t happening and carry on merrily as if nothing has changed.

“Keep an even keel.”

“Don’t rock the boat.”

That this is the case is evidenced by the Valukas Report. Its 300+ pages detailed the catalogue of failures which General Motors experienced as a result of its unwillingness to deal with a very serious problem. For more than 10 years, the company ignored the rising number of complaints that came in from their customers, dealers, and the media. Even the engineers at GM were aware of the problem. The ignition switches that it put into many of its cars were responsible for turning car engines off whenever the car was in motion, whether it was backing out of the drive or barrelling along the motorway. Notwithstanding a number of weaknesses in the company’s policies and procedures, the Report made it clear that the real problem was due to the fact that no one could be bothered to do anything about it. The company was steeped in a culture of complacency.

Oh there were meetings and committees and “investigations”; but there was never any follow-through. Instead there was what was called the “GM-nod” – the general agreement by everyone who happened to attend a particular meeting that there was a bit of a problem, but it wasn’t that important, and therefore there was no reason to get so excited that any sort of action should be taken to deal with it.

You could be forgiven for thinking that GM was content with the status quo. And to a certain extent you’d be right. They obviously had no intention of fixing anything unless they were forced to.

But GM was deliberately trying to keep things as they had been for generations. To do that would have meant committing themselves to a purpose. And what is so clear in the Report is that far from doing things deliberately, they had a well-developed attitude which meant, “I can’t be bothered.” In other words, they weren’t trying to do anything. This complacency existed from the CEO all the way to the shop floor.

No doubt there were a few isolated individuals who want to make things better all ‘round; but you can probably imagine what it was like for them – being told not to worry about it. It seems that GM didn’t hold its managers accountable for fixing problems that had been identified. Not only that, there was no sense of urgency about this or anything else.

What about your organisation? What characterises its culture? Is it committed to excellence, or is it too complacent to care?

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