En Garde, Complacency

En garde! This French term means to be “on your guard” and is literally an exclamation – a shout to be ready for action.  You may have seen this before in old-timey movies or read in classic stories where the hero challenges the villain.  True to form, our hero (or heroine, story dependent!) has their guard up and is ready for whatever may come; the key here is that even though the outcome is already a given (hint: the good guy wins), our hero does not become complacent.  This topic has been trending in various safety and occupational health forums – and rightly so!  Recently, over 300 National Safety Council member organizations ranked it the “most pressing safety and health issue in the workplace.”  My experience as Safety Officer in a nuclear aircraft carrier affirms this sentiment, particularly where deployments stretch long, patience wears thin and tasking is “dull, dirty or dangerous.”

However, this is not solely a military problem for as long as an organization has people…people subject to human nature, there is potential for complacent behavior.  Fortunately, the process is well understood and can be prevented, controlled and mitigated when members understand the learning process, managers and safety professionals effectively communicate the issue, and leadership is committed to encouraging and modeling an en guard mindset!

“The danger which is least expected soonest comes to us.”
– Voltaire

Described many ways, complacency is simply when you feel comfortable, but should not.  Focused primarily on the ‘learning of a new skill’, the model was originally developed by management trainer, Martin M. Broadwell in 1969.  His four stages describe the psychology behind the behavior and provide significant warning for those on the look-out for symptoms of complacency.  This is critical not just aboard Navy ships where deployments bring monotony, but in any organization where members must endure constant repetition, like factory or assembly line work.

Complacency Process Diagram


It begins with ‘Conscious Incompetence,’ where the individual is likely new to a task with little to no understanding, but recognizes the skill deficit.  This is integral to the learning process and why over-instructs are so important.  Over time, the member makes mistakes and gains experience, thereby graduating to the next level: ‘Conscious Competence.’  This is a good place.  Here, they are becoming well skilled at a task but still consciously involved in executing each step…in short, they are paying attention.

Unfortunately, this ‘safety sweet spot’ is difficult to maintain, especially for those jobs “kitanai, kiken, or kitsui.” Colloquially known as the 3-D’s, it is the ‘dull/difficult’ category that seems to yield the most noticeable affects in this regard, simply because the sheer act of repetition breeds comfort, and comfort yields a complacent mindset.  Clearly, if our nautical hero does not adopt an en garde attitude, this will quickly degrade to ‘Unconscious Competence,’ which is the next link in the complacency chain.

Marked by exceptionally high skill developed through repetition, the worker performs said task easily and often.  In the Navy this time of deployment is often referred to as “Groundhog Day,” and statistically has nearly 30% higher MISHAP rates than those months just after a deployment begins, or even the final month or two.  In essence the job has become “second nature,” but there is danger in this inherent comfort.

Having a false sense of security (someone will catch my mistake…), becoming desensitized to risk (nothing all that bad will happen…), or exposure to grinding repetition (why would today be any different?) are all potential outcomes of excess comfort.  Left unchecked, they lead straight to the final stage in the complacency process, ‘Unconscious Incompetence.’  This is when the individual no longer possesses the requisite skill for a job and worse, does not identify or admit to the lack.  We call this overconfidence and it is the jumping-off point for a host of mishap inducing human factors.  Sadly, it often takes a near miss or even a full blown MISHAP to force a change.  Said David Teater, former NSC Transportation Expert, “What would we do if a plane crashed today and 100 people died?  What would we do if it happened again tomorrow?  And the next day?  We’d ground air traffic…”

“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think…”
– Socrates

This is where safety professionals and managers must truly work to make a difference…and the difference must be personal.  No longer will the cliché “spray and pray” safety programs work, especially when battling this particular hazard.  Onboard a naval ship, many of the jobs meet this “3-D” criteria.  It would be easy to get distracted, go on auto-pilot, or simply clock-out and that is why regular engagement with the troops is essential.  Influence is a funny thing as you never really know the impact until you take it away.  The safety professional that encourages vice chastises, explains instead of orders, or inspires the safe choice for the right reason vice the rule, will be noticed and followed.

The last item is one of leadership.  Recognizing that this topic alone is the subject of a plethora of research projects and scholarly articles, in this circumstance it can perhaps be simply summed up as this: practice what you preach.  Organizational leadership must empower their safety professionals with appropriate resources and access, and publically support the program by modeling the desired behavior.  Want your employees to wear their PPE?  Make sure that you do the same, even if it is just a quick walk across the production floor.  Also, be open to criticism – respectfully of course.  No one should be above correction when they are in the wrong.  The senior leader that gracefully accepts input from a subordinate builds credibility for their safety program and their leadership as a whole.  Finally, be constant in approach.  A lack of consistency degrades credibility which is a critical component of granted power and a cornerstone to relationship development.

“Paper doesn’t save people, people save people”
– Dan Petersen

Complacency is an insidious and significant hazard that is difficult to approach.  It might be easier to simply gloss it over with a few pamphlets and flyers in the hallway, but that is not what the heroes in those old-timey movies do.  They stay alert, ready for action, and keep their guard up.  It is a challenge, but remains a worthwhile endeavor.  Model your organization after them, encourage the SAFE choice and proudly declare, “En Garde Complacency!”


CDR Sam Mason is the recent Safety Officer in USS NIMITZ, helicopter pilot and proud ASP.  Presently working in NATO, he remains committed to helping others make the “Safe Choice” through the power of education and relationship.



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