Complacency: You Become Complacent the Minute You Think You Are Not
Posted: 6/12/2017

“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” – Benjamin E. Mays




Risk in aviation is a dirty word and something that we must minimize. Our jobs and training are built around minimizing the most risk possible. The alternative could have disastrous results including loss of life and loss of millions of dollars of equipment. So we put systems, processes, regulations and training in place to minimize risk. However, each of us has been guilty of one of the top causes for mistakes in the aviation workplace:


Complacency: “overconfidence from repeated experience performing a task.” (FAA)

 1: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies When it comes to safety, complacency can be dangerous. 2: an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction. (Webster Dictionary)


Have you ever driven home from work and when you arrived, you could not remember the drive? You mind may have been on something important happening at home or in your personal life. You were so familiar with the drive that the car could almost be on autopilot because you have driven the route so many times. A recent visit with commercial aircraft fuelers at Little Rock–Clinton International Airport sparked the conversation about how some parts of their jobs require the same repetitive procedures over and over again, day after day. I asked them how they combat complacency. Most mornings they are out there in the wee dark hours of the new day filling the wings of the same planes on the same schedules each day and working alone in a fuel truck for most of their shift.

Complacency is listed second (after “Lack of Communication”) on the Federal Aviation Commission’s “Avoid the Dirty Dozen – 12 Common Causes of Human Factors Errors”. Their suggestions for minimizing complacency in the aviation workplace are:

  • Expect to find errors
  • Don’t sign it if you didn’t do it
  • Use checklists
  • Learn from the mistakes of others

The aircraft fuelers that I spoke with in Little Rock told me that they go over their checklists and processes/procedures again and again in their heads….even if they have done the procedure 500 times.

The biggest and probably worst problem that complacency causes is “mind not on task”. If fear or thoughts about risk is no longer preoccupying your thoughts about the task you are doing, your mind can wander. When you are thinking about something other than what you are doing at the moment, your star player is sitting on the bench. Your mind is your most important safety device. However, we do not always need to be thinking about what we are doing, from a risk perspective, in order to do many things (like my example of driving home) without getting hurt. We can do many things on auto-pilot. But it is important to realize that our minds do wander especially when doing things we have done many times before. It is going to happen. It happens to everybody. There are techniques we can use to fight complacency. We need to be aware of these techniques and we need to teach others on our team these techniques if they are not using them. We also need to develop and maintain a deep level of respect for complacency and what it is capable of doing so that it does not creep into our decision making during critical tasks.

Listed below are four safety skill development techniques that can help prevent complacency:

  1. Hazard Awareness in the Present. We all know the grill/stove is hot, but every year or two we burn ourselves by touching the hot grill/stove. We know it is hot because we are cooking on it and we probably even lit it. Awareness is in the NOW. Are we are of the hazards around us right now? (not in the past and not in the future) Are we respectful of the hazards/dangers that can happen to us right now? When we are conducting a task that is hazardous or could produce a hazardous result if not done correctly, we must stay aware in the present moment.
  2. De-Brief Your Own Close Calls to Learn from the OOPS! Do not miss the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Often when we make a mistake, the thing we are most concerned with is if anyone saw us make it. It is important to analyze errors and close calls to see what state our mind was in and why we did what we did in order to see if maybe it was a habit we need to work on.
  3. Observe Others and Discuss/Debrief Accidents/Errors. This is probably the most helpful in combatting complacency. When we observe others or review past serious errors, we can be aware of the danger and possibly see error patterns to combat.
  4. Work on Improving Our Habits. Always think and look before you move. Think about what you are getting ready to do. Go through your checklist of the process. Recognize the patterns and bad habits that could cause error. This will help you to stop situations that may have increased risk for yourself and others. Practice good habits. If you do it enough you will become more aware of the patterns that are best for you.


Hopefully, your organization has a strong safety training program that includes written policies and procedure as well as how to follow them. Continuously discuss and review the problem of complacency both for yourself and your team.