A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief. ~Proverbs 6:10-11
This proverb has always stuck with me as a warning of the consequences of staying too comfortable. The saying asserts that, day by day, there is an accumulation of small decisions we make to stay in our comfort zone–to do the “easy” thing. And then little by little, these daily decisions to stay in one place reap their consequence–the lack of prosperity. This is the consequence that robs you of your true potential. At times I have thought of this quote in the context of career terms. Perhaps it would go something like, “A little time watching the clock, a little time doing meaningless reports, and a stagnant career will come on you like a thief.”
The tricky part of this proverb is that a slow accumulation of making small daily decisions to not “work hard” leads to an unfortunate end that is a surprise to the person. This feeling of security while being unaware of the potential danger is the definition of complacency. So what are the signs of complacency in one’s career? What sets two people apart who start the same entry-level job on the same day, where one makes a slow ascent with few promotions while the other steadily progresses to become the head of the entire business unit? Because complacency slowly and silently can take root in someone’s career over a span of years without them realizing it, I call it the #1 Career Killer. While complacency is not always easy to recognize, there are some consistent habits of successful people that, if modeled, can get people out of the mindset of comfort zone and into the mindset of striving.
Here are some habits of individuals who successfully avoid becoming complacent:
- They question the reasons behind the tasks they do to make certain that tasks have a necessary purpose to meet overall business objectives. They do not fall into a routine of doing things because “that’s the way they have always been done,” or because they were asked to do them. Rather, they understand the big-picture goals they need to achieve and they line up daily actions to ensure that there is congruence. If certain tasks do not fall in line with the business objectives, they stop doing them.
- They have goals that they are constantly working towards, reviewing, revising and resetting. Having an active plan to achieve goals keeps people in a mindset of constant action to achieve an objective. The key is to make the plan, and then to consistently evaluate results to ensure successful follow-through and execution of the plan.
- They are constantly looking for new opportunities to improve. This perpetual mindset of always looking to improve keeps them striving to refine their skills, to change their approach and to advance their execution of objectives.
- They do not feel their job is “easy”. There may be times during a career where someone may not feel perpetually challenged. However, someone who is not complacent will always push himself and make his own challenges even when the inherent task at hand seems relatively simple. George Keller said, “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” To evade complacency, one must always see possibilities, even in things that may seem mundane on the surface.
- They have a clear plan for what they need to do to get to the next level. The end goal is always clear in the mind of a high achiever. And since they are always thinking of improvement and how to reach their objectives, they prioritize making plans to achieve their goals.
- They think in terms of what accomplishes big picture objectives, not what checks items off of a list. It is so easy to mistake the feeling of success that you get from being busy as a sign that you are achieving your long term goals. But the truth is that success only comes from achieving results. People who are not complacent understand that completing a list of tasks, while they may be necessary for one’s work, do not equate to achieving success. Success only comes from the results of achieving your overarching goals.
Complacency is the enemy of success, and the best way to avoid it is to remain in a mindset of consistent improvement. The legendary former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has broadcast this message again and again. He said,
“The mindset of yesterday’s manager – accepting compromise, keeping things tidy – bred complacency. Tomorrow’s leaders must raise issues, debate them, and resolve them. They must rally around a vision of what a business can become.”
And as advice on a personal level on avoiding complacency, he said, “You’ve got to be constantly raising the bar. Finding that thing that makes you win has to keep being escalated all the time.” If you want to keep your career alive and thriving, keep challenging yourself to improve, and weed out complacency every day.
…Listen to Critical Feedback
My first satisfaction survey as a manager was a disaster. For the most part the survey results were positive, but there were a couple of free form comments that were particularly troubling to read. My reaction to these comments was a case study in exactly what NOT to do when you receive critical feedback. At first when I read the critical comments, my thoughts turned to defensiveness. Then my thoughts turned to criticism of the mystery person who anonymously wrote them. I was plagued by these comments throughout the next week, to the point where I missed the useful feedback in the employee satisfaction survey altogether. The aggregate results of the survey were positive. Had I been able to digest the negative comments along with the positive ones, our work group could have really benefited from the whole exercise. But my own denial and defensiveness made me blind to both the value and the message of the critical feedback.
Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you received a positive performance evaluation, but there was just one piece of critical feedback that occupied your thoughts as your takeaway. Maybe you did not feel the feedback was true. Or maybe it was just the first time you had heard that particular criticism, so it took a great deal of time and energy to process. In order for you to continually evolve towards success, the key question is “What exactly needs to change in order for you to be able to digest critical feedback?”
For me, I discovered that I needed to change my perspective. The employee satisfaction survey experience taught me that critical feedback will always tell you one of two things:
- Something actually needs to change. None of us is perfect and the quicker we face our imperfections, the quicker we can improve them. Maybe you didn’t see a personal flaw until this point, but sometimes it takes someone else’s perspective to reveal the honest truth.
- Something is important to that person. One person’s opinion may not be representative of the truth, however listening to their perspective can reveal valuable information about what is important to that person. And improving your understanding of your team members can be a priceless thing. So even if you decide you do not agree with what someone is saying, you are able to learn something about that individual.
Either way, whether you agree with the actual feedback or not, the feedback is always telling you something of value.
Once you start looking at feedback in this manner, criticism is no longer something to be feared. There is no reason to be defensive about what is shared. Because as soon as you see the feedback as either something true that needs to change, or as something that gives insight into the person giving the feedback, the message is always helpful. We want to move from a place where we are viewing feedback as a threat to our self-esteem to a place where we believe that feedback will always have value regardless of whether it is positive or negative, true or untrue. You cannot argue with someone’s opinion, since the unwavering truth is that the feedback is their opinion.
As an example, I once received criticism for not attending the funeral for the elderly uncle of one of my team members. At the time, I had no idea that an indirect report would expect me to be part of what I viewed to be a private family affair. But from that feedback, I learned that for some of my co-workers, it was important for them to feel supported in this manner. Had I not listened to this feedback, I would have missed the opportunity to understand a key value held by several members of my team. And not understanding this value would drive a division between us that would put a strain on our working relationship. Lesson learned. I used this experience to change my approach going forward.
Now when I receive feedback, I make sure to:
- Say “thank you.” This crucial step must come regardless of my personal opinion of who is giving the feedback or whether I agree with the feedback.
- Evaluate the message to see if it is indicative of something I need to change.
- Consider if the message tells me something useful about the person’s values that will help me to better understand them.
- Make any changes as needed and move on without dwelling on the criticism.
Notice the steps I took out of my process of receiving feedback–namely, getting defensive and criticizing the person offering the feedback. These two actions are such instinctive “defense responses”, yet they are utterly destructive to improvement in both you and your team.
The President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim stressed the value of listening to feedback by saying,
No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.
Feedback is the greatest gift you could possibly receive because the person sharing it cares enough to make himself vulnerable by sharing his opinion. He could have done the easy thing and said nothing. But the fact that he cared enough to incite improvement by saying something is a trait that deserves your gratitude.
My wish for you in the New Year is that you succeed in your resolutions. Being open to critical feedback will make you more successful–even in your blind spots.