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  • Tara Rethore

Is Familiarity Breeding Complacency?

Walking along a beach I’ve tread for years, I was reminded that in our most familiar environments, what seems the same is often quite different. Each tide and every storm adjusts the landscape, removing and depositing rocks, sand, and the detritus of our world. This beach has always been rocky and uneven, so it’s easy to miss the changes that are regularly and routinely wrought along its landscape.


Familiarity breeds contempt.


In business, senior leaders codify, streamline and systematize common processes and interactions. They create routine to enhance efficiency. This is not inherently bad – unless the familiarity breeds contempt, or merely complacency. Walking along the beach, I gravitate toward the familiar route, successfully reaching my destination each time.


It's not always easy to access new ideas or paths from familiar places – as my client (CEO of a mid-sized company) recently noted. Over the last several years, the company’s results have been good. The team has been consistently doing what’s needed to maintain revenue and retain customers. Still, the CEO worries that they are losing their “edge”, as more competitors enter the market and margins thin. In the CEO’s words: “We’ve become complacent.”


Inject energy.


Familiarity allows a relaxed, open environment and a shared intimacy among colleagues and customers. Having an experienced, tenured team, the CEO knows their people well. High customer retention suggests their customers know the company’s value and quality of delivery. Yet, this comfort with each other was making it harder to see and capture new or different opportunities. The CEO recognized that the status quo would not deliver the results he wanted.


To combat complacency and reignite growth, inject energy.


Chart a new course.


Growth is a common goal. Without explanation, however, it’s unlikely to create the momentum you need. Rather than simply setting a number, successful CEOs also describe what success looks like. For example, higher revenue or different customers may produce career opportunities, interesting or different types of work, time to test new ideas or explore.


Then, they engage the leadership team to define how they’ll catalyze growth. They address questions like these:

  • What are the most critical aspects of your business that you must get right in order to be successful?

  • What elements of how you operate are enabling success today?

  • What elements are getting in your way?

  • What relationships do you need to attract and capture new business? Which do you have now?

  • To what extent does the data support your beliefs or assertions?

  • What decisions, actions, and behaviors will allow you to grow?

When the future must be different, the path to get there must also change. Chart a new course.


We often find comfort and strength in the familiar. It allows us to establish a solid foundation and move forward confidently. Conversely, familiarity may also obscure subtle changes or erode the chosen path. CEOs that acknowledge the two faces of familiarity are well positioned to inject energy and chart a new course to achieve the results they need.


Is familiarity breeding complacency?