cost of complacence

November 15, 2019

illustration by nilesh juvalekar

Refusal to step out of our comfort zones is a defense mechanism of sorts—making us entrenched in the familiar, keeping change at bay. Businesses too get trapped the same way, obsessing over ‘what is’ and failing to realize the immense possibilities that lie beyond.

As human beings, we seek out comfort. It is a basic primeval instinct—our natural state is in the comfort zone. Our cave-dwelling ancestors had much harder lives than we do today, and comfort was much sought out and cherished. Behavioral scientists have discovered how this simple principle is hardwired into much of our decision-making. It drives inertia and our desire to fit in with others. This desire to be in the ‘comfort zone’ impacts organizations as much as it does individuals. But it raises the question as to whether you can be too comfortable and whether this is a bad thing.

the dangers of being in the comfort zone

Nick Pye is founder of Mangrove. He is Co-Author of Stretchonomics – The Art And Science Of Success.

In recent years, it has become apparent that a business being comfortable can be a dangerous thing. We live in uncertain and changing times—what the military, elite athletes, and other alpha individuals like to call VUCA. Being complacent does not seem smart or much like a business strategy. Many executives we speak with are worried about being disrupted—usually followed by a reference to Airbnb, Uber, or Amazon (or all three). The fear of disruption is making even the most comfort-seeking execs uncomfortable. In addition to external threats, being comfortable, sitting in the ‘comfort zone’ shows a lack of ambition which is generally not seen as attractive for investors, employees, or even customers.

Indeed, it is worth noting that the best strategy to deal with disruption is often to have great people who are adept at adapting and reacting to change. Now, more than ever, businesses are competing to recruit and retain this talent.

Whether it is the millennial mindset or not, increasingly, we have seen that those with talent are not looking for long-term stability but a challenge to which they can contribute. Is the company trying to make a difference in the world, serve the customer in a different way, beat the competition, blow up the market—these are much more engaging challenges than maintaining scale, single-figure growth, or market share. Talent seems to be seeking companies with ambition, to stretch and develop them rather than job-for-life stability.

These worries are creating an interest in this space, if not action.

is your culture too comfortable?

So how do we know if our business is too comfortable. Firstly, we exist in an age of benchmarks and metrics. Like never before, we can track, measure, and graph pretty much anything and everything. Whether it is our smart watch telling us to get up, off the sofa and put more steps in, or our LinkedIn account telling us that activity was down 23 percent last week-we have visibility, whether we like it or not. Whilst those, most securely anchored in the comfort zone, will try to avoid targets and metrics if they can, it is often not easy to do so. Whilst setting the right metrics is key, the old saying ‘what gets measured gets managed’ remains true. The key difference between high-performance teams and businesses and those comfort seekers lies not in the metrics themselves but what happens when the data comes in. Comfortable companies will tend to look at poor performance metrics (such as growth rates, market share, service metrics) and spend time on providing explanations. Those who are looking to grow, and stretch will focus their energies on using the information to learn and improve.

In our experience, these high performers have a very different mindset than those in the comfort zone. As we will see, our research shows that high performers tend to push themselves by operating in a ‘stretch zone’—they achieve more by looking to do more, they want to learn, progress, and grow. Being in the comfort zone is a much more passive mentality—either implicitly or explicitly, the focus is keeping the status quo. It is inherently internal and defensive…and therefore, ironically, it is only possible to lose. Nothing stays the same, but often companies only realize this when it is too late.

Businesses which are in the comfort zone tend to go to lengths to avoid issues or conflict. There is a mentality of not wanting to rock the boat, a tendency to seek agreement at all costs.

Based on our consulting work and research (with companies ranging from startups to FTSE 100, elite athletes, and beyond), there are some common signs of the comfortable…

  • issue avoidance and short-termism: Businesses which are in the comfort zone tend to go to lengths to avoid issues or conflict. There is a mentality of not wanting to rock the boat, a tendency to seek agreement at all costs—avoiding or postponing difficult conversations or decisions. This tends to lead to short-term thinking. Comfortable companies are happiest managing the short term. The close-in is more known and knowable. The known, whilst comforting, is also extremely limiting.
  • self-satisfaction: There is often an implicit arrogance and/or an air of self-satisfaction within businesses which are too comfortable. There is a sense that their scale or history will insulate them from future change, or that their unique perspective means that they are the ‘smartest guys in the market’. This is not only an unattractive personality trait, but it also reduces the ability to empathize with customers or consider competitive activities (until it is too late).
  • lack of ambition or risk-taking: Another symptom of being too comfortable is risk avoidance. Many markets are quite competitive and getting more so. Getting significantly ahead requires…requires doing something different from other players, and as a business, this takes bravery. A comfortable business or leader is inherently not courageous. The status quo is the aim and the best strategy is likely to be more of the same, rather than different. Ironically, this sort of defensive mindset leads to reductive thinking—obsession over ‘what is’ prevents any consideration of ‘what could be’.
  • politics: an interesting observation is that the teams which have some of the above symptoms tend to be the most political and least good at rewarding talent. They are often highly political because they are not looking outwards. Teams in the ‘stretch zone’ are united by a common and tough goal. Teams under pressure often come together. Those without this pressure tend to turn inwards. This often means that talent is less rewarded than connections or political skills. This wastes a huge amount of time and money, with little in return, rewarding ‘bad behavior’. History fans—think fall of the Ottomans, Romans, or ancient Greeks!
  • lack of diversity: Politicking naturally leads to a lack of diversity of thinking. If your goal (explicitly or implicitly) is to keep your boss(es) happy and maintain stability and comfort, then it is sensible to exclude those with different or challenging views. The most comfortable cultures we have seen are where there are the 3 Cs: conformity, conservatism, and cronyism. Diversity is the antidote for disruption.

The real key to being in the stretch zone (ie, not in the comfort zone) is being very clear, as a team or as a business, about what you want to achieve and also what you are prepared to do to achieve it.

taking your business into the ‘stretch’ zone

The real key to being in the stretch zone (ie, not in the comfort zone) is being very clear, as a team or as a business, about what you want to achieve and also what you are prepared to do to achieve it.

Being clear on the scope of your business or a team and what it is you want to achieve with clear measurable targets is essential. This sets direction. A number of recent studies have shown that simply having a plan can as much as double chances of success, even if it is not executed. This clarity of direction is meaningless without the commitment to deliver against it. This commitment can be broken down into a number of constituent parts. Firstly, there is resource—is there enough time, money, or people to deliver the target? If not, leaders will lose credibility and teams their motivation. Beyond this, having the right capabilities, tools, people, and processes are key. All of this needs to be backed up by brave decision-making. The alignment of scope, target, resource execution, techniques, courage and hunger is at the core of being in the stretch zone.

In conclusion, our experience is that a comfortable business is not only a weak one poorly set up for shifts in the market to potential disruption but also not a happy one, long term. The problem with not stretching is the alternative to atrophy. Comfort is a finely balanced state, not a way to run a business.