The problem of complacency

“He doesn’t normally do that!” These words have become an earworm for me today. I cannot get them out of my head. I have heard them said regularly in the past, usually by owners of dogs that are taking a chunk out of someone’s leg or chasing a petrified child. They were said this morning as a hound, which came up to my waist, made a beeline for me, bounding as though he was about to leap and take my head off. Luckily for me, I was walking at the time and he veered away at the last moment, so I was not forced to fight back or curl up in a ball! Nevertheless, I must have had a look of terror on my face as I braced for the upcoming collision.

The fact that ‘he doesn’t normally do that’ does not give me any solace. A lot of dog owners, when they see me running towards them, will get hold of their dog and control them until I have passed by. This particular owner would probably have done the same if the dog regularly ran towards people. As it does not, he had assumed it never would and was therefore taken by surprise this morning. There is a risk that any dog will run towards a person, either aggressively or out of fun. The dog owner no longer thought of this; he had been lulled into a false sense of security. He had become complacent.

In the past, I had been complacent about going out for a run. I did it so often I did not consider the potential risks, after all none of them had come to fruition despite the numerous times I had ventured out with nothing but my running kit. Until 2008, when I slipped in the mud and ripped open my finger on a branch on the floor. As these things often do, this occurred at the maximum distance from home and, with no phone or money, I had to walk home, compressing my finger to stop the blood flow. Since then I take my phone and wear a pair of sports glasses, so I can clearly see where I am treading, and a medical dog tag. However, complacency crept back in and last year I slipped on ice and cracked a rib. So this morning, following a freezing night, I was doubly careful not to repeat that mishap.

Complacency is not easy to define and even harder to prevent. The dictionary definition talks of extreme self-satisfaction and smugness, but this is not the whole story. Some definitions go on to add ‘accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies’. Others replace the self-satisfaction and smugness with a feeling of quiet pleasure or security. Yet other sources say that the calm satisfaction prevents you from trying harder. Yet, this might still not be the whole story. It may not be a matter of trying harder, unless it is trying harder not to be complacent. The calm satisfaction or uneventful repetition leads us to lose awareness of the potential risks associated with the particular situation or activity, if we knew them in the first place, and leaves us closed to any external changes that may lessen the likelihood of things going wrong.

We are all prone to complacency, whether in minor activities, such as running or dog walking, or in more serious areas, such as the safety of ourselves and colleagues at work, our careers, the running of our businesses, our health and lifestyle and our relationships. These can all impact on both work and home, but those probably most relevant to NDT are safety, careers and business. NDT is more often than not performed in highly hazardous areas, be that in the manufacturing shop or in service on operating plant. Complacency can have dangerous consequences. The rate of change of technology and its impact on the world and the business environment can mean that our self-satisfaction with continuing to do the same thing can, as individuals, suddenly leave us without the necessary skills and qualifications or, as a company, lead to being suddenly usurped by the competition with new products and services.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we only become aware of our complacency when we are brought up short by a near miss. We then make more of a concerted effort but gradually, over time, we revert to a new period of complacency. You can probably think of your own personal examples.

So, how do we combat complacency? Hopefully, I will provide some suggestions next month. In the meantime, if you know of any tools or techniques that work, please do not hesitate to send them in. I will give due credit to any submitted.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK.
Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

Comments by members

Comment by martin longmuir
, United Kingdom

Date 06/02/2020

I have worked with people who will carry out an inspection in a certain way and when
I have asked them why, they state 'that's the way I was taught/shown/told'. Instead of seeking guidance from standards, procedure etc they are just going along with what someone else has said.

Instead of combating complacency we can develop good habits until they become instinctive. That way when we do relax or run on auto pilot we are following a good practice rather than a poor one. If numbers and clients allow we can work in pairs or teams, with regular changes in personnel. This change means that personnel will constantly be challenged by one another as well as learning from one another.

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