Beware of Complacency!

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It creeps in slowly and gradually at the start, gaining momentum when little or no resistance is met. It slithers into our well-worn routines and procedures without a sound, catching us unaware and vulnerable at the worst possible moments. It tenderly whispers, “Don’t worry, we’ve done this a hundred times. Nothing is going to happen. You just relax.” It shifts our awareness elsewhere, and our attention is leached away from the task at hand, leaving us obliviated and heedless of the ongoing risks of our surroundings.

Each and every one of us falls prey to it at some point in our aerial adventure career, sometimes without even recognizing it. This brutish, invasive force is not some malicious, spooky creature out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.

The monster of this story is complacency.

The Evil Monster

The concept of complacency is a hot-button topic in the challenge course industry. Often the cause of shifty eyes and whispers of blame when incidents occur, complacency is the invisible evil that we all fear. Like the Chupacabra, we warn our staff about how scary complacent behavior is, and how it sneaks up on us when we are alone and vulnerable. “You better watch out, or it will get you, too!” we say in an endless playback loop.

Despite all the warnings, we still find ourselves snagged in its slippery claws. So, what lies behind the mask? And what can we do as professionals to foil complacency’s nefarious plot? It looks like we’ve got another mystery on our hands. Let’s get that mask off the monster—figuratively speaking during Covid times, of course—and see what lies behind it.

Defining Complacency

We can all agree that complacency is bad—but what does it actually mean? The definition of complacency includes the phrases “self-satisfaction” and “unawareness of actual dangers.” What it refers to are habits or behaviors that are developed based on past experiences and are used to complete present tasks. These behaviors generally are not aligned with dictated procedures and involve an individual’s failure to recognize the risks or consequences.

Applying this interpretation to our industry, complacent behaviors are habits or acts that have been developed based on the assumption that because nothing negative has occurred, nothing negative will occur. This often leads us to become bored, let our guard down, and/or diminish the perceived risk of the activity. It can result in aerial adventure professionals mentally “checking out,” or devaluing and/or altogether ignoring operational procedures or guidelines in order to make the task at hand easier or more interesting.

To further clarify complacent behavior and for the purpose of this article, complacent habits or acts can be separated into two categories: conscious and unconscious.

Conscious complacency involves a decision on the part of the individual (e.g., a staff member chooses not to wear the appropriate PPE). These acts are intentional, and the staff member is aware that what he or she is doing is incorrect.

Unconscious complacency happens without the individual’s awareness (e.g., a staff member “zones out” on the job and is no longer paying attention to his or her surroundings). In these situations, there is no active decision being made, it just happens.

Both categories pose risks to practitioners and guests alike. Conscious complacency often proves easier to identify and address.

Identifying Complacency

Complacency can be overt or subtle, depending on the individual, and presents itself in a variety of ways, from general “too cool for school” attitudes to thoughtless acts without regard for consequence or a semblance of catatonic day-dreaming.

Overconfidence. Oftentimes complacency is first seen during training once a trainee starts to feel confident in his or her newfound abilities. Like any young’un, trainees begin to test boundaries to see where the hard lines actually lie. Generally, this confidence is shaken once a mistake is made and the trainee has a reality check moment. This event brings the trainee back into a mental space where his or her full attention is on the task at hand.

Once out of training, the next brush with the beast may come weeks or months down the line, depending on the individual’s vigilance. Make no mistake, though, for the vast majority of staff, there’s a direct relationship between confidence level and the likelihood of complacency.

External influences can also have an enormous effect on an individual’s susceptibility to the complacency trap. When staff are tired, hungry, hot, cold, etc., their attention may be diverted from procedure to the fulfillment of those needs first and foremost. Boredom due to repetitive action can also lull people into a lack of proper caution.

Lastly, complacency tends to be HIGHLY contagious. One of my very favorite (not) ways that this contagion manifests is in veteran staff interactions with new practitioners. Like upperclassmen in 1980s coming-of-age rom-coms, seasoned guides may feel that “freshman” guides need to learn the rules of the school as soon as possible.

I once had the immense pleasure of overhearing a too-cool second year guide tell one of the freshly graduated trainees to just “forget everything” they learned in training because doing it “that way” made the job “way harder.” While the right way may in fact make the job more difficult, that’s not a reason to ignore established procedures. Often, when behaviors outside of defined procedures are touted as “tips” they are not recognized for what they truly are: dangerous.

Combating Complacency

We all know that complacency kills. There are countless instances that prove it, so I will not bemoan its specific dangers and consequences here. Let us instead discuss what can be done to de-mask the monster.

Acknowledge it. First and foremost, acknowledging the thing that is dangerous can help prevent the thing that is dangerous. Acknowledge complacency, inform staff, describe when and how it happens. Make its consequences painfully obvious by answering the hard “what’s the worst that could happen?” questions and set clear behavioral expectations.

Be aware. Encourage employees to perform self-assessments at regular intervals. Self-awareness and reflection allow for practitioners to identify when they are heading down a bad road and stop the behavior before it takes hold.

Encourage staff to ask themselves questions centered on their needs and mental state. Have them evaluate how their decisions align with organizational guidelines and rules. These steps address both the conscious and unconscious forms of complacent behavior.

The leadership staff must act as motivators and mentors in these practices. They need to be prepared to make good on promises of support or guidance for staff when necessary.

Maintain a learning culture. Employers should also provide periodic opportunities for continuous improvement and staff learning. Reliance on self-assessment, while admirable, is not always enough or may fall short, depending upon the audience.

Maintaining a learning culture is key to avoiding complacency among guides. Photo courtesy of The Forge: Lemont Quarries.

Leadership within organizations should create real and tangible goals for employees to strive for, regularly ask employees to perform duties in an assessment environment, and encourage employees to seek higher training levels. The practice and evaluation of rarely used skills and procedures keep them fresh in the minds of staff. These steps remind them regularly of their potentially wide range of responsibilities.

Provide feedback. Feedback in this scenario needs to be provided in a concise, constructive, and direct fashion to ensure expectations are understood. Weekly or daily meetings in which staff debrief recent trends, incidents, or potentially inappropriate behavioral patterns can also stop the complacency monster in its tracks by highlighting areas of concern and pointing to more suitable actions.                   >> continued

Conducting thorough and detailed training is also of vital importance in preventing staff complacency. Training should not just be used to give practitioners the bare-minimum skills required to fulfill job roles. Training can be used to construct solid foundations and company culture, on which good habits are built.

Trainers must explain the “why” behind certain procedural requirements or practices, and provide appropriate time for practitioners to grasp conceptual topics. Trainees should be given multiple opportunities to circle to the why behind topics and connect the dots throughout training.

Time to acclimate. This application of new concepts and the development of critical thinking can take time, oftentimes multiple days. Practitioners need appropriate space for reflection and analysis. Trainers can facilitate trainees’ application of previously discussed concepts to new learning through leading questions, group discussions, review, and training techniques such as whole-part-whole teaching.

These steps create the foundation and opportunities for trainees to fully understand the magnitude of their responsibilities—for themselves and others. They also provide trainees with the tools to fall back on when guidance is not readily available. Otherwise, staff and teams will be set up for failure due to lack of deeper understanding.

The role of leadership. Lastly, organizational leadership must be willing and able to appropriately identify and correct unsafe or complacent behaviors in staff and themselves. Complacency awareness and avoidance starts at the top.

Managers must review and reflect upon incidents and near misses within their staff and ask what needs to happen to prevent similar situations in the future. Staff often become complacent due to repetitive or mundane roles. To address this, leadership may choose to move individuals to new positions periodically.

Managers must also hold themselves to the same or higher standards, and should be present both mentally and physically during working hours.

Attempting to defeat such a challenging foe can, at times, feel like an impossible feat. Through constant recognition and awareness, we shine a light into the haunted corners, forcing the monster into the spotlight to be exposed and repelled. It is worth fighting to ensure that the bad guy, complacency, doesn’t wreak havoc. So, keep the Scooby Snacks close at hand and the Mystery Machine running. We’ve got work to do, gang.

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