Complacency and False Urgency Impede Change

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By John Kotter

We have a serious problem. The problem is complacency. We have all seen it. Yet we underestimate its power and its prevalence. Highly destructive complacency is, in fact, all around us, including in places where people would deny it, deny it, and deny it still more.

With complacency, no matter what people say, if you look at what they do it is clear that they are mostly content with the status quo. They pay insufficient attention to wonderful new opportunities and frightening new hazards. They continue with what has been the norm in the past, whether it’s short hours or long, suits or jeans, a focus on products or systems or not much of anything. As an outsider, you may correctly see that internal complacency is dangerous, that past successes have created sluggishness or arrogance, but complacent insiders—even very smart people—just don’t have that perspective. They may admit there are difficult challenges, but the challenges are over there in that other person’s department. They think they know what to do and they do it. In a world that moves slowly and in which you have a strong position, this attitude certainly is a problem, but no more so than a dozen other problems. In a fast-moving and changing world, a sleepy or steadfast contentment with the status quo can create disaster—literally, disaster.

Far too often, managers think they have found the solution to this problem when they see lots of energetic activity: where people sometimes run from meeting to meeting, preparing endless PowerPoint presentations; where people have agendas containing a long list of activities; where people seem willing to abandon the status quo, where people seem to have a great sense of urgency. However,  more often than not, this flurry of behavior is not driven by any underlying determination to move and win, now. It’s driven by pressures that create anxiety and anger. The resulting frantic activity is more distracting than useful. This is a false sense of urgency that may be even more destructive than complacency because it drains needed energy in activity and not productivity.

Since people mistake the running-around for a real sense of urgency, they sometimes actually try to create it. The frustrated boss screams “execute.” His employees scramble: sprinting, meeting, task-forcing, e-mailing—all of which create a howling wind of activity; but that’s all it is, a howling wind or, worse yet, a tornado that destroys much and builds nothing.

The real solution to the complacency problem is a true sense of urgency. This set of thoughts, feelings, and actions is never associated with an endless list of exhausting activities. It has nothing to do with anxious running from meeting to meeting. It’s not supported by an adrenalin rush that cannot be sustained over time. True urgency focuses on critical issues, not agendas overstuffed with the important and the trivial. True urgency is driven by a deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing. With attitude of true urgency, you try to accomplish something important each day, never leaving yourself with a heart-attack-producing task of running one thousand miles in the last week of the race.

In a turbulence era, when new competitors or political problems might emerge at any time, when technology is changing everything, both the business-as-usual behavior associated with complacency and the running-in-circles behavior associated with a false sense of urgency are increasingly dangerous. They are not only torpedoes that will eventually sink ships, they are often stealth torpedoes and that makes them doubly dangerous.

This article is excerpted from John Kotter's book A Sense of Urgency (Harvard Business Press).


About the Author(s)


John Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, and founder of Kotter International. He is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change. Kotter’s new book, with Lorne A. Whitehead, is Buy-in: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down (Harvard Business Press).