Overcoming Complacency in the Workplace – 5 Ways to Motivate Negative Employees

Today more than ever, there’s a common source of angst in people trying to make a living – and a life. It’s the disconnect for many between personal and career fulfillment. This is often a catalyst for negativity and complacency in the workplace.

While complacency can be anyone’s problem, when it afflicts your employees it becomes your problem too. Workplace complacency often falls under the radar because it can disguise itself as status quo – especially when on the heels of a successful project. Other times, it’s from a sense of discontent and frustration among workers. So if management isn’t in active growth mindset mode, it may take too long to notice that your employees are running well short of that extra mile.

“Any form of complacency is the kiss of death for any professional.” – Joan Rivers

Definition of Complacency in the Workplace

Complacency manifests various behaviors – boredom, inaction, indecision. It often stems from low-self-esteem, and yet for others, self-satisfaction. Overall there are three prevalent ways that complacency tends to present itself in the office or on the job site. We will introduce all three, but it’s primarily the third category that we cover in detail, and talk about the best ways to overcome it.

First, an article on Teambonding.com talks about organizational complacency. An organization’s complacency as a whole occurs through self-satisfaction:

…following a successful navigation through a highly competitive environment or crisis that threatens the company, as a collective sigh of relief. This is rooted in the belief that the organization is on the leading edge of success without ensuring that it is.

Second, complacency can become physically dangerous in a literal sense. In some industries, employees can get overly accustomed to the repetitive nature of how things are done. Routine may cause workers to under estimate the risk of dangerous tasks that are performed on regular basis. They may also fail to pick up on any changes in the environment.

Finally, there’s the individual employee who may show complacency in any number of ways. This can be someone who’s burned out, distrustful, loses their sense of direction within the company structure or just plain toxic.

Unfortunately it’s not only the employee that suffers emotionally. So do your colleagues, perhaps industry partners and the company’s bottom line.

There are many factors that can go in to why someone loses motivation to do their job and do it well. It becomes all about surviving and not thriving.

While climbing the ladder of success is still a priority for many of us, there’s also now a widespread focus on deeper overall personal fulfillment. Many are struggling to find a career that at the end of the day they’re personally fulfilled and motivated to do it all again the next (while still being able to pay the rent).

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe” 

― Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Signs of Complacent Employees

Complacency in the workplace is called the silent killer of success because managers are often unable to intercept it midstream. When an otherwise great employee jumps ship or progress halts, it might leave you scratching your head. It’s also difficult to confront because signs of complacency can often be subjective in nature. There’s no big screw-up and no loss of revenue that can be directly attributed to one person. So to overcome complacency on the job, it’s critical for managers and business owners to be proactive in watching for the signs.

8 Common Indicators of a Complacent Employee

Complacency in the workplace. How to motivate negative employees.
  1. Disinterested – a low level or absence of enthusiasm, a sense of going through the motions; minimal respect in attire
  2. Lacks Initiative – a lack of proactiveness, collaboration, and participation at meetings or company functions
  3. Resists Change – reactive before even hearing the details or negative about possible outcomes, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it mentality
  4. Cuts Corners – has gone from detailed oriented to a sense of entitlement over following procedures
  5. Zones Out – asks few questions, doodling, texting at inappropriate times, seems too lost to recap information discussed
  6. Shows Signs of Being Overwhelmed – seems anxious, insecure, struggling with a full plate
  7. Acts Disgruntled – a sense of bitterness; does not take any responsibility for their unhappiness or discontent for their job
  8. Avoids Self-Improvement Opportunities – no longer deems it necessary to further invest in their professional growth

Implementing a positive culture in and around the office, leaving little cause for complacency, takes a lot time and attention. You know the saying, “People don’t quit a job—they quit a boss”? Well that belief does not hold as much weight as you may think.

According a recent study reported by SHRM in partnership with the Harvard Business Review, complacency often develops where job meaning lacks.

If you want to keep your people—especially your stars—it’s time to pay more attention to how you design their work. Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they’re open to creating jobs around them. – People Analytics Team, Facebook

Don’t Just Deal With It…Combat Job Complacency

A continual innate awareness and active observation are certainly key. But then come the necessary steps to keep the door to success open in order to maintain a positive, productive workplace culture. Try these highly effective and proven ways to avoid complacency in employees – before damage control even comes in to play.

6 Highly Effective Ways to Stop Workplace Complacency . . . Before it Starts

  1. Communicate Vision — Not all organizations are as transparent as they can be. Remind employees of the company’s mission and goals on a regular basis. Don’t assume you are all on the same page. Create a connection to the big picture and emphasize that their contributions have an impact.
  2. Mix Up or Avoid Routines — Repetition can get boring and surely lead to complacency. If possible, change up some of the tasks required to add variety to an employee’s job.
  3. Address Performance | Teambuilding — Mentoring programs and coaching help employees identify, and can change troubled practices and potential problems and unite co-workers.
  4. Encourage Self Awareness — Self-awareness is the key to self-improvement and developing a positive mindset. Discuss with your employees how they feel they’re doing? Ask open-ended questions and don’t allow your time together to be interrupted by “more important” issues.
  5. Provide Incentives — While long game opportunities for growth may seem obvious, don’t underestimate the power of simple gestures too. With little monetary investment, things like an extra day off, gift cards, certificate to a restaurant are great ways to boost office climate and individual self-esteem.
  6. Lead from Within — It is your responsibility to prevent burnout, thus protect your top talent; and that includes you as well. Make sure you are giving the best of yourself to your team and hopefully they will do the same in return.

“It is not the genius at the top giving directions that makes people great. It is great people that make the guy at the top look like a genius.” 
― Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

Motivating Your Negative Employees

So the flu isn’t the only bug you need to worry about making its way around the office. SHRM research shows that negative behavior is just as contagious as the proverbial bug. When you have a negative employee, the entire team suffers sooner or later. For example, nothing is good enough for Danny Downer; and Negative Nancy will drain the life out of your organization if not dealt with effectively. Based on a recent study, HRZONE presents the following suggestions to help understand the causes and commit to creating a positive working environment for your team.

Overcoming complacency in the workplace and negative employees through team building.

 5 Ways to Motivate Negative Employees

1. Talk to Your Negative Employee

Choose a calm, private setting, and discuss the situation face to face. Set aside plenty of time, so you’re not clock watching, and you can give your employee your full attention. Ask them how they feel about their job security, tasks, relationships and working environment. This will help you determine the cause of the negativity.

2. Ask for Their Suggestions

Ask the employee for their suggestions about how to motivate negative employees and improve attitudes in the business to encourage them to buy-in and own the process.

3. Reinforce Positive Behavior

Work out goals for change with your employee while emphasizing the need to be more positive. Then, ask them how they would feel, how the working environment would be improved, if everyone were more positive. Acknowledge that everyone will have an off-day once in a while. Finally, ensure managers always demonstrate positive behavior as well.

4. Follow Up

Schedule a meeting to follow up on the changes you’ve discussed and agreed upon with your employees. With that in mind, make yourself accessible and approachable every day. True support is noticed and embraced when it remains consistent.

5. Invest in Positivity

Improve the working environment by introducing programs and activities such as employee recognition and appreciation gestures; employee-wellness programs; or team building games linked to improved behaviors, collaboration and productivity.

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Overcoming Complacency in the Workplace

The last thing you need is to be on the defense when your goal is to make your organization thrive. Keep your staff motivated by showing up for them everyday. Demonstrate to them that you not only value their contributions to the team but that you have trust in them. Communicate your appreciation in that people desire both professional and personal fulfillment for which they must balance.

If the time must come to escort a negative employee out the door, you can rest in knowing that you did everything you could to make your office environment a positive and productive one.

Who here is not guilty of needing an occasional mental break during your workday? With that in mind, remember that it’s within our human condition to drift off or disconnect now and then. While no one will care more about your organization than you, when you do have to deal with negative or complacent employees, put it in context in order to create a plan for a more positive work life balance.

Other articles about Complacency you might find useful:

How to Stop Being Complacent

How to Avoid Complacency in a Relationship


  1. Great article for both managers (and employees) to create awareness in overcoming complacency in the office. Look forward to more motivational strategies for staying positive at work.

  2. Complacency in the workplace is such a problem where I am right now. I find myself falling victim to complacency at times too just because of the negative culture lately. These are motivating tips and helpful insight – thanks for writing about it.

  3. Ken,
    My apologies for the late response. I greatly appreciate your positive feedback! It’s so reaffirming to know you found the article insightful and meaningful!

  4. Been struggling with complacency issues at our place for a while. This is helpful insight and it reminds us that as managers we cannot ignore discontent. Also we are responsible for creating and maintaining a healthy work culture. Thanks for the article and the tips.

  5. Thanks for all the insight and information on this topic. I am preparing to deliver a presentation about workplace complacency to my colleagues in an upcoming meeting and this article has been helpful.

  6. Thanks for laying out this information and structuring all of it in an applicable way. Differentiating among those who have just checked out versus employees that have potential and need support is challenging. Helpful guidance about addressing complacent and negative members of an organization here, as well as getting them and managers to productively communicate.

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