The Complacency Trap

One of the most insidious traps we can fall into in life and work is that of complacency—a state of easy contentment, with a lack of concern about or awareness of problems or risks. Complacency can prevent us from recognizing risks, trying harder, and making improvements.

Examples abound. We can be complacent about our health—or the health of our loved ones. Or complacent about our relationships. About our work, team, leadership, or organization. Complacent about our democracy and planet.

How to know when we’ve fallen into the complacency trap?


11 Signs of Complacency

When we’re complacent, we:

  1. Take things for granted
  2. Have too much routine, making things feel monotonous
  3. Stick to what we know
  4. Are too comfortable too often
  5. Stay in our comfort zone
  6. Start to “phone it in”
  7. Stop learning and growing
  8. Begin losing our ambition
  9. Resist change
  10. Avoid risk
  11. Start taking the path of least resistance

Author Brendon Burchard warns us about “the comfortable life:

“…over time, in the comfortable life, something stirs within; maybe not a frustration but something in the sense of restlessness. That restlessness is a feeling or sense that maybe there is something more.” -Brendon Burchard


The Problem with Complacency

There’s nothing wrong with comfort and satisfaction per se. These are good things, and we want them in our lives. The problem is when we have too much of them and lose our zest for life and our inner fire to go after our dreams.

Complacency can:

  • sap our motivation
  • lead to inaction when action is warranted
  • prevent us from making needed improvements
  • reduce our initiative and sense of hope
  • lead to mediocrity
  • rob us of future opportunities and benefits
  • derail our career
  • lead us to a “default life”

In their excellent new book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging, Richard Leider and David Shapiro warn of living what they call a “default life”:


“Just floating along from one year to the next, accepting things as they present themselves without question or intention, is a surefire recipe for dissatisfaction and despair in later life. Living the default life is… living a life that isn’t really of our own choosing. It’s living a life that inevitably gives rise to questions like ‘Where did all the time go?’ ‘How did my life pass so quickly?’ and ‘Why did I squander my one precious opportunity for living?’” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro


What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to avoid or escape the complacency trap. Here’s a punch list:

Start acting with urgency. Like our time counts. Because it does.

Leverage deliberate agitation. Engage in what Tyler Hakes calls “deliberate agitation” (like shaking a snow globe). He writes:

“You let things settle into place just long enough and then shake them up. Watch to see if they fall into the same patterns or if something new and better emerges…. You deliberately and intentionally question things and change them before they become a problem. You remain vigilant in trying to improve so that way you don’t fall into the trap of complacency that leads to eventual failure.” -Tyler Hakes

Dream big. We should think expansively about all we want to do in our lifetime in different areas—family, relationships, career, education, impact, travel, and more. When we do that, we feel the wondrous and mystical pull of our deepest aspirations.

Step out of our comfort zone. Too often, fear holds us back from venturing forth and risking ourselves. When we push ourselves, take risks, and dare to have adventures, our blood races and we start to feel awake and alive again.

Challenge ourselves to strive for a BHAG—a “big, hairy audacious goal.” This can be a life goal or a work goal, but a true BHAG should take our breath away with its audacity.

“…there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge—like a big mountain to climb…. Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort—often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut.” -Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

Calendarize time to work on the most important activities that will ensure we make progress on our top goals. That way, we can not only develop good and productive habits but also become the sort of person who consistently gets big stuff done.

Enlist an army of support. Consider recruiting an “accountability partner”—someone who can help keep us on track (such as a training buddy or someone willing to receive regular progress reports).

Identify and remove barriers to change. When we’re stuck, it’s easy to become complacent. We’re good at acclimatizing ourselves to a new situation. So get to work on identifying the major obstacles to progress and how to overcome them.

Notch short-term wins on meaningful work to build momentum. Draw on what researchers call the “progress principle”:

“…of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.” -Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle

Take full responsibility. Be what my co-author, Christopher Gergen, and I call a “life entrepreneur.” We thrive when we take ownership of our life and recognize our agency—when we take our life back. Life entrepreneurs create opportunities for themselves. They bring their dreams to life. They intentionally craft a good life with good work.

Get clear on our personal purpose, values, and vision:

  • Our purpose is why we’re here. It’s what gives us a sense of meaning and significance—often by connecting with and serving others.
  • Our values are what’s most important to us—our core beliefs and principles that guide our decisions and behavior.
  • And our vision is what we aspire to achieve in the future—and what success looks and feels like for us.


Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Build vitality. We feel better and achieve more when we develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness. When we’re intentional about productive and energizing habits, rituals, and routines.

Let go of limiting beliefs. Too often, we’re our own worst enemy. We’ve placed ourselves in a mental prison of judgment, negativity, and rumination. We have the power to upgrade our mental operating system, which will help us break the chains of complacency.

Set and maintain high standards. We tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. We often do better with deadlines, accountability, and high standards of personal and professional excellence.


Related Traps

The complacency trap is common, and it can be deeply damaging. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:


Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

Final Thoughts

The complacency trap can rob us of quality time and experiences as well as passion and achievement. It can be tricky because we do want satisfaction and serenity, and not a life of frenetic striving and hair-on-fire busyness and hustle.

Somewhere in between, there’s a healthy place of commitment and urgency to live and work purposefully, achieve worthy things, serve others, and cherish our days, not squandering our time in a cool cloud of complacency.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent has complacency crept into some aspects of your life and work (or that of your friends, colleagues, or organization)?
  2. What will you do to regain the clarity, motivation, resolve, and urgency to get out of this trap?

Wishing you well with it—and let me know if I can help.






Gregg Vanourek


Postscript: Quotations on Complacency

  • “Complacency keeps you living a comfortable life… not the life you desire. Challenge yourself to do something different. Then, notice the new charged quality of your life.” -Nina Amir
  • “The life you have left is a gift. Cherish it. Enjoy it now, to the fullest. Do what matters, now.” -Leo Babauta
  • “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger
  • “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
  • “I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.” -Trent Reznor
  • “Complacency is a blight that saps energy, dulls attitudes, and causes a drain in the brain. The first symptom is satisfaction with things as they are. The second is rejection of things it as they might be. ’Good enough’ becomes days today’s watchword and tomorrow’s standard.” -Alex and Brett Harris
  • “History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” -Gerald R. Ford
  • “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” -Jim Rohn
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” -Nelson Mandela
  • “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
  • “Our best enemy is the one who challenges us, and so doing, teaches us to set out to discover our potentials, while our worst friend is the one who is numbing us and lulling us into complacency, always being consenting or acquiescent.” -Erik Pevernagie
  • “Success is not guaranteed, it’s temporary.” -Frank Sonnenberg
  • “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.” -Robin Sharma
  • “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.” -John Kotter


Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Take Advantage of that Transition Time in Your Life

I was worn out. I’d been flying around the country for years, chasing big deals with my team, with intense pressure to close them. Our company needed the cash. I was caught between two top executives secretly undermining each other. And I was beginning to recognize that the fit between the company and my values was steadily evaporating.

I wasn’t taking care of myself. Slowly losing touch with my family and friends. Feeling frequent stress and pressure.

The excitement I had felt when we were starting up was slowly dissipating, like air leaking from a small hole in a balloon. I kept going for long runs around the lake, wondering if it was time to move on.

Then one day, I did. I’d had enough. I finally realized it was time.

So I jumped off the train.

I took my life back.

I felt alive and free. And I didn’t leap right away to the next thing. I knew I needed time to detox.

I gave myself an expansive self-imposed sabbatical. A healthy chunk of time to recover and renew. To get my health back. Time to regroup—and to find my way back to myself. I was fortunate to be able to do that. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

I was in transition. And that transition needed time and space to play out without me forcing it.

We all go through transitions in life and work. Some are planned, while others are imposed upon us. Some feel great. Others can be excruciating.

Transitions are common: Youth to adulthood. School to work. From living alone to being in a relationship, or in a marriage, or with a family. Back to school. New job or career. A new city, state, or country. New friends and interests. Transition to midlife, and to retirement, and to elderhood. Breakup or divorce. Empty nest. Illness. Loss of a loved one or pet. Becoming a caregiver.

One thing is certain: transitions are on the horizon. They’re coming for us. Transitions are inevitable.

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.” -Heraclitus, 360 BCE

Given their inevitability, we must learn to live with and manage them. Otherwise they can consume us or take us to dark places.

In his excellent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, author Bruce Feiler distinguishes between what he calls “disruptors” (regular challenges and setbacks) and “lifequakes” (which can rock our world). He defines a lifequake as a “forceful burst of change in one’s life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal.”

How does this play out over the course of a lifetime? Combining the two, Feiler explains:

“The number of disruptors a person can expect to experience in an adult life is around three dozen. That’s an average of one every twelve to eighteen months…. But every now and then, one—or more commonly a pileup of two, three, or four—of these disruptors rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events lifequakes, because the damage they cause can be devastating, they’re higher on the Richter scale of consequences, and their aftershocks can last for years.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions

Feiler adds them up, and the totals are jarring: “The average person goes through three to five of these massive reorientations in their adult lives; their average duration, my data show, is five years. When you do the math, that means nearly half our lives are spent responding to one of these episodes” (disruptors or lifequakes).

Looking back on my own life, I see tons of transitions. Moving around so much during my childhood. Then moving to London for grad school, later moving to Sweden with my family, and then back to the U.S. after ten years. Transitioning from a nonprofit think tank to an education foundation to an online education startup company. Starting my own company, and then a partnership. Getting married. Becoming a father. Transitioning to midlife.


Typology of Transitions

Our transitions can be personal or collective. Personal transitions are individual changes related to our health, finances, work, etc. Collective transitions are ones we go through together, such as the coronavirus pandemic, global financial crisis, or 9/11.

Our transitions can also be voluntary, such as deciding to get a degree or change jobs, or involuntary, such as getting fired or becoming ill. Feiler notes that most lifequakes are personal and involuntary. Ouch.

And he shows how smaller disruptors can become bigger lifequakes. For example, some disruptors occur at a moment of personal vulnerability, such as when we’re already burned out or having relationship problems. Or it can be the last straw: when one disruptor occurs at the end of a long string of them, causing us to snap. Or it can be a “pileup”: when many disruptors clump together suddenly, much like a traffic pileup on a busy freeway.


Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Difficulties

Transitions are hard. They trigger all sorts of stresses and fears, changing our mental state and our physiology.

And they’re messy. When we’re in transition, we’re leaving something known behind for something new and uncertain. We’re grasping in the dark, suspecting danger right around the corner.

We can lose not only our sense of stability and security but also our identity. We begin to doubt ourselves.

When I left that intense job after months of deliberation, I didn’t know what I would do next. I thought about waiting—playing it safe and lining new things up before I left. That can be a smart play. But it didn’t feel right to me then.

I wanted to give it my all when I was in it and then leave it when I felt I couldn’t anymore—or didn’t want to. I sensed I needed down time to get whole again before figuring out my next move.

It’s unsettling to be in that in-between mode, without clarity our resolution. Who are we without that title and the social capital that we believe comes from our position? Can we handle the gaps, with all their perceived judgment and perhaps even rejection or condemnation?

“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.”Herminia Ibarra, professor, author, and career change expert


The Benefits

Though surely difficult, transitions also come with a host of benefits, many of them unacknowledged. Here’s a short list of eight main benefits:

  1. Transitions can lead to a better situation, or even a breakthrough.
  2. They’re opportunities for a “do-over,” when we can think and act anew, taking advantage of the tabula rasa.
  3. Transition time is alive time—when things are new or challenging, and when our lives are on the line. The adrenaline surges. Our hearts beat faster as we relinquish safety and venture forth into the unknown.
  4. Transitions allow us to slough off the masks we wear for others and to become ourselves more fully again. We can stop pretending and have the courage to be who we really are, even as we fear the reactions or rejection of others.
  5. When managed well, transitions can lead to powerful and memorable moments in life. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck writes, “Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
  6. Transitions are a real opportunity for a fresh start, when we set down old obligations and get a taste of true freedom once again.
  7. They’re an opportunity to reassess and determine if there’s a gap between the life we have and the one we want. Those gaps can last years, or even decades, as we drift through life, so even painful transitions bear a gift with the wakeup call that can lead to needed change.
  8. Getting good at managing change and transitions is a key leadership capacity. According to leadership expert Warren Bennis in his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, “the one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders—the key competence—is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.”


The Mistakes We Make in Transition

Despite their relative frequency, transitions generally don’t occur often enough for us to develop natural capacity to manage them. We have to work at it. Meanwhile, we tend to make mistakes, adding to the pain. Here are some common mistakes:

-Awaiting perfect clarity before making a decision or taking action. So we never get off the starting blocks, or we wait much too long.

-Having unrealistic expectations about the pace or scope of change.

-Rushing it, often because we’re feeling behind. Premature decisions can set us up for failure by trapping us in recurring negative patterns.

Going it alone, trying to solve complex life equations without tapping into the wisdom of others who’ve been there before and the support of people who can witness our suffering and sit with us so we don’t feel so scared and alone.

-Choosing for the wrong reasons, such as the desire to please our parents or impress our friends and colleagues. A sign of the prestige magnet” in action.

-Being confined by our past, our relationships, or our self-identity (e.g., “I’ve been a lawyer since I was in my twenties, many of my friends are lawyers, and I don’t know who or what I’d be if I weren’t practicing law”).

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” -Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

-Wallowing in negative thinking, focusing on the worst case, or ruminating on mistakes or sleights. These only place us in a mental prison of our own making.


Tips for Navigating Transitions

Since many transitions are so hard, we’re bound to fumble through them at certain points. Still, there are things we can do to lighten our load. Here are some quick tips:

-Take care of yourself. Invest in good sleep, exercise, nutrition, socializing, hobbies, and other self-care practices. Without these, everything else will just be harder.

-Develop healthy routines and rituals, leveraging the power of habit. Find what works for you, potentially including exercise, breaks, meditation, prayer, reading, journaling, sleep, and more—especially in the morning and before bed.

-Look for small wins and take a systematic, intentional approach, avoiding the temptation to try to force a breakthrough. Take it one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, as long as we’re also awake to opportunities and willing to take action.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…. Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.” -John Wooden, legendary basketball coach

-Avoid premature resolution. Try to hold out longer in the fog of transition time. Be sure to give yourself adequate time and space to do the necessary inner work of reflection, conversation, pattern-spotting, meaning-making, and experimentation.

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”Joanna Penn, author

-Get clear about your individual purpose, values, vision, strengths, and passions. These can serve as a safe harbor to return to when you hit storms in your life. They give your life meaning as you tease out the patterns from your personal history.

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back upon himself.” -Charles de Gaulle

-Be willing to join the dance of change, alternating between leading the dance, being led by others, and observing yourself in the dance from afar with your mental observer (your ability to step out of your unintentional thought flow and observe your thoughts and reflect on your life).

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”Alan Watts, philosopher

-Expect and embrace imperfection, messiness, and the unexpected. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the saying goes.

-Focus on changing yourself, not others, and focus on what’s in your control, not on complaining about the way things are.

-Recognize your abilities and assets—and all the previous transitions you’ve navigated. Have a little faith.

-Give yourself grace and practice self-compassion. Recall that transitions are hard for everybody.

-Let go of relationships that are no longer serving you. As terrifying as this can be, sometimes it’s the missing key that will unlock a better future, though it’s likely to take time, pain, grief, and healing.

-Reframe change and transition from something to be avoided to something that’s natural, inevitable, and an exciting opportunity for an adventure and growth. View it as a challenge to overcome, or a puzzle to solve. Transitions can be great opportunities for learning and growth.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” -Frederick Douglass

-Lean on your support network and don’t go it alone. Talk to family and friends. Lean on a mentor, coach, or therapist. Join a small group, perhaps a men’s group or a women’s group.

-Think creatively and boldly about potential change, even fundamental change, over time (while also not rushing it and remembering the power of small wins in the meantime). Otherwise, we risk settling for poor or mediocre outcomes and wasting the potential embedded in the transition.

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, investor
“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Closing Thoughts

As much as we can struggle with them, we should give ourselves more transition times in our lives. Too often, we stick it out in a sub-optimal situation for too long.

We should also work to get good at them, allowing ourselves to transform as we learn and grow and as the world changes around us. As we do so, we reduce our self-inflicted wounds and have more time and space to enjoy our lives.

Give yourself more transition time—and get good at it.







Reflection Questions

  • Are you in need of a voluntary transition? Have you been waiting too long? What’s holding you back?
  • Are you taking advantage of the transition times in your life, or jumping right away to the next thing?
  • How can you get better at navigating the disruptors and lifequakes you experience?


Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Postscript: Quotations on Transitions and Change

  • “To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it.” -Herminia Ibarra
  • “It is when we are in transition that we are most completely alive.” -William Bridges
  • “She knew this transition was not about becoming someone better but about finally allowing herself to become who she’d always been.” -Amy Rubin
  • “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” -William James
  • “All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” -Marilyn Monroe
  • “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” -Albert Einstein
  • “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” -Rumi
  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • “Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Conflict Is Good–And How to Manage It

Do you know how to manage conflict well? Most people avoid conflict. Why?

There are many reasons, with fear at the heart of them all:

  • Fear of tension
  • Fear of hurting others
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of escalation of tough issues
  • Fear of a break in the relationship
  • Fear of an unexpected outcome, perhaps tougher to manage
  • Fear of being viewed as a troublemaker
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of having to deal with difficult consequences

These fears are understandable. So we end up avoiding it like the plague.

“In my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time


Signs of Conflict Avoidance

Conflict avoidance is widespread in organizations and teams. Signs of it in action:

  • People hold back and withhold opinions.
  • Meetings are boring or lame because people don’t really engage.
  • Team members don’t challenge each other.
  • Teams slide toward mediocrity since recurring issues never get addressed.
  • Leaders don’t invite differing views.
  • Some people are allowed to remain silent during meetings.
  • People say what they really feel only behind others’ backs.
  • Managers don’t get critical information.
  • People get cynical or burned out because the same problems keep reappearing.
  • People develop blind spots because they never get the feedback they need that’s tough and necessary.
  • People sense that the leader is abdicating responsibility by letting some things remain undiscussable.

Do you recognize these signs in your context? Here’s the problem: conflict is good for teams. In fact, it’s essential.


Mining for Conflict (Stop One in How to Manage Conflict)

Author Patrick Lencioni writes about a conflict continuum, ranging from artificial harmony on one end to mean-spirited personal attacks on the other, with most organizations leaning toward the former. The ideal conflict point is in the middle.

Productive conflict is what we need. Respectful conflict. Conflict grounded in trust. And conflict centered around shared goals, not egos or agendas.

Conflict can’t be productive without high levels of trust. How can you feel comfortable airing out the real issues if you don’t trust the people in the room? Without that trust, and the productive conflict it allows, how can the team drive toward shared commitments, accountability, and results?

With high trust and a focus on shared goals, we can channel conflict toward the pursuit of truth (what’s really going on here?) and the quest for high performance, instead of feeble attempts by fragile egos to notch points.

Managing conflict is hard because most people run away from it or get triggered by it, allowing stimuli to hijack their response. It’s uncomfortable because it elicits a physiological response: chemicals, hormones, blood flow, and heart rate signal “Danger, danger!”

Part of the job of leaders is to create an environment where people feel comfortable engaging in conflict instead of fleeing it. Better yet, viewing it as an asset. As a potential advantage.

Leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to recognize that people handle conflict differently, based on their personality, upbringing, culture, and more. We must learn to read each other and help each other navigate this difficult terrain.

Lencioni recommends that leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold. Why? Some of the real breakthroughs can only be found on the other side of conflict.


How to Mine for Conflict

How does this work in practice? A leader must go digging for buried disagreements or the things that aren’t being said. Also, a leader must have the courage to bring the group’s attention to sensitive issues, where people feel uncomfortable, and push them to work through the issues despite the awkwardness and difficulty. A leader mustn’t let people avoid the issues or sensitive discussions. In addition, a leader must create a holding environment where it’s safe for some sparks to fly.

One leadership practice here is counterintuitive: catch people disagreeing during a meeting and praise them for modeling needed behavior. Remind them that the goal is not to focus on who wins, but on how conflict can help us understand core issues, root causes, and possible solutions.

By doing this, leaders can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence.


Regulate the Temperature

Another leadership practice here is “regulating the temperature.” Most teams generate friction and heat in their work together, especially in pressure-filled situations. Too often, leaders step in and artificially dial down the temperature as people start to feel uncomfortable.

That’s a mistake. The key is to keep the temperature hot enough—but not too hot—so that productive disagreement can continue as people work through the tension and start approaching solutions, instead of sweeping things under the rug.

Another leadership practice: depersonalize conflict. Reframe it away from who’s scoring points and toward a quest for understanding and a commitment to the shared vision.

A final leadership practice: driving to clear agreements and closure at the end of meetings. Too often, teams end meetings with ambiguity. People leave the meeting without a clear understanding of exactly what was decided and who’ll do what by when. Many meetings are poorly run, with tangents and poor time management. Attendees leave the meeting before a crisp accounting of the decisions and next steps is made. Leaders need to build in adequate time for this critical last step.


Not Just for Managers or Others in a Position of Authority

Important note: the leadership practices above don’t apply just to managers who have a formal position of authority. Distinguishing between leadership and authority, we note that anybody in a team can employ these leadership practices, regardless of their title. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, we noted the advanced leadership practice of building a culture of stewardship in which leaders unleash the leadership, initiative, creativity, and commitment of everybody in the organization by giving them an automatic license to lead, as long as they operate by the shared values. Conflict management is a skill we all need.


Conclusion: How to Manage Conflict

The bottom line: while most people avoid it, we should embrace conflict as a necessary part of effective teamwork (and relationships generally)—and learn how to manage it well.

Productive conflict saves time.

It builds trust.

And it leads to better results.

Productive conflict is a prerequisite for high-performing teams and trusting relationships.

Avoid conflict at your peril.



Recommended Books on Managing Conflict Effectively


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study: “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations


Avoiding Important Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that a very high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?


Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety. It’s a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. As with floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, it reduces or eliminates psychological safety.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.” That’s because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so they don’t share their ideas.


The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni. He noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to avoid, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust. That’s because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Leading in a Crisis

Today, we are all being tested greatly, and so it is with our leaders. Individuals, organizations, and systems are all under strain, with some facing overload. Here are several keys to crisis leadership.


Radical Focus

When you are in a crisis, your immediate priority is survival. Crises require take fierce discipline in personal and organizational time management. Leaders should expect to use more “steel” (hard-edged leadership) than “velvet” (soft-edged) at the outset.

In a crisis, leaders must mercilessly cast aside all manner of ideas and projects—some with real merit—to ensure a tight focus on one or two key priorities needed for survival. Other priorities must wait. Even with this radical focus, leaders should look beyond the current storm, seeking creative ways to position the organization or group to flourish once the storm has passed.


Communicating Reality and Confidence

During a crisis, people need to know what is happening. Effective communications are essential, and it is imperative that the executive is factually accurate and forthright.

Leaders should block their calendar daily for time with their team and other key stakeholders. They must be visibly present inside and outside the organization—using all available technologies to enhance access.

Since people are stressed and worried as rumors fly, leaders must give people a sense of what to expect in the coming days and weeks, blending both realism about the current situation and confidence about the future if wise and bold action is taken.

It is essential to listen carefully and answer questions honestly. People need to be heard, and they deserve a realistic assessment of the situation and want solutions (or credible plans for how to get them). Credibility is a tremendous asset for the hard work ahead and must not be squandered.


Psychological Stability

In a crisis, many people are afraid, upset, or angry. The executive must establish not only financial and operational stability but also psychological stability. People need to be unfrozen, empowered to do what is required with confidence. Here is a tried and true process for establishing psychological stability:

  • Ventilation. First, identify all the problems. Go around the table, with each person briefly stating one issue—whether major or trivial and without editorial comment—or passing. Stop when everyone around the table has passed three times in a row. Be sure to document all the issues raised so people know they have been heard.
  • Priorities. Then sort the issues into topics (e.g., financial, operational, safety) and rank them as A, B, or C priorities.
  • Projects. Then form a crack team to work on the A priorities. The Bs are placed into a holding area, awaiting progress on the As. The Cs are deferred. The executive should require weekly (or daily) status reports to the senior management team on the A priorities, thereby establishing both transparency and accountability.
  • Values. The executive must then emphasize the need to operate by shared values.
  • Amnesty. Before moving forward, wise executives recognize that progress is not possible if people maintain vendettas about past grievances or play the “blame game.” To move forward, everybody must agree to provide amnesty for all prior mistakes. No grudges. The focus must be on the present and future, not the past.


Crisis Response Team

Facilitating the process above, the executive will get a sense for who would be reliable officers in the stormy seas ahead and who would be dead weight.

Selecting the crisis response team (and its associated roles and processes) is one of the most important things a leader can do. Skill set, character, emotional intelligence, resilience, courage, and buy-in with the shared values are good criteria to use in selecting the team. An effective organizational structure with clear roles and responsibilities, reporting lines, and communication channels are all required.


Operating Rhythm

A real risk in crises is that the initial momentum fizzles, causing the enterprise to spiral down again. To maintain forward momentum, leaders must establish a persistent operating rhythm with accountability follow-ups. Regular status reports and town hall meetings with employees (or constituents) are important.

The effort requires persistence. The group must hack away at the root causes of the problems, not symptoms. Together, they make slow and steady progress over time, reporting results and encouraging each other. Such feedback loops help foster alignment.

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” James Watkins, author



In crises, leaders receive a barrage of body blows. To survive such an onslaught and to remain at their best, leaders need a daily practice of sanctuary to refresh mind, body, and spirit. Leaders must not lose themselves in their role, taking the inevitable attacks and setbacks personally.

“In moments of darkness you need to remember why you’re here and why you’re fighting that fight.” –Jacqueline Ros, co-founder and CEO of Revolar


Triple Crown Leadership Practices

Finally, the five “triple crown leadership” practices that are key to building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations are all applicable to crises:

  1. Head and Heart. Choose people not only with the “head” elements of skills sets but also with the “heart” elements of character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit.
  2. The Colors. Commit to uphold the shared purpose, values, and vision.
  3. Steel and Velvet. Flex between the hard and soft edges of leadership. Leaders should invoke steel to hold people accountable for the values and priorities but be careful not to squelch the initiative of potential leaders in the ranks.
  4. Stewards. Unleash multiple leaders to serve as stewards of the culture. Most crises require a great team of leaders, not a lone visionary.
  5. Alignment. Achieve peak performance through disciplined, collaborative alignment, with clear action plans, accountability mechanisms, and feedback loops.


Wishing you well with your crisis leadership.


Additional Tips on Crisis Leadership

  • Be wary of “the greatest leadership sin of all–hubris.” –James Kouzes and Barry Posner, A Leader’s Legacy
  • “You can’t surrender to the options before you. There’s always another way.” –Cory Booker, civic entrepreneur, U.S. senator
  • “People always ask me, ‘What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?’ Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.” –Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur, inventor, investor
  • “The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before.” –Jim CollinsHow the Mighty Fall

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Avoiding Breakdowns

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” -Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

In leadership circles, too often the focus is on success principles for effective leading. That is all well and good, but often it can be more helpful to tackle things from the other perspective: what causes leadership to break down (and what can we do to avoid breakdowns)?

First, there is a connection between personal breakdowns among leaders and the breakdowns of their organizations. Here we reflect on both.

Personal Breakdowns

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid, Roman poet

Even the best leaders are at risk of breakdowns or setbacks in their life and work. Many leaders have frenetic schedules of meetings and travel, or face constant stress and pressure. As the effects accumulate over time, exhaustion sets in. Though many just “suck it up” and ignore the risks, those who want to thrive and endure recognize the potential for danger, including losing their ethical moorings, making rash decisions, and damaging important relationships.

Leaders need regular exercise and movement, nutritious food, good sleep, and ways to find sanctuary (e.g., mindfulness practices, nature walks). “Triple crown leadership” (our model for excellent, ethical, and enduring/sustainable leadership) begins with leading ourselves.

Failure to do so leads to problems with all three areas: excellent (in terms of performance problems), ethical (with lapses in judgment and impulsive compromises), and enduring (with an unsustainable pace that wreaks havoc on our health, judgment, and relationships, and that can damage our organizational culture). Leaders seeking to avoid organizational breakdowns should start by leading themselves.

“The cornerstone of effective leadership is self-mastery.” -Patricia Aburdene, best-selling author and social forecaster

Organizational Breakdowns

In today’s volatile environment, organizational breakdowns are common. Sometimes it is a quiet affair with an orderly dissolution of assets. Other times, it is a seismic crash with painful ripple effects. Sometimes an organization rises to the pinnacle and then slowly fades back in the field.

Importantly, most organizations do not break down before emitting warning signs. Normally, the financial signals, such as revenue declines and shrinking margins, are lagging indicators. Leading indicators are more important because leaders can address them before the financials go south. What are some early warning signals of potential breakdowns?

Early Warning Signals of Organizational Breakdowns

  • Focusing too much on strategy shifts and tweaking processes instead of accountability for results
  • Complacency
  • Ethical compromises
  • Short-termism
  • Boards out to lunch about performance, culture, ethics, and sustainability
  • Chaos or constantly changing priorities

Some of the common causes of these breakdowns include: excessive deference to the top managers, failing to tap into the potential of people, leaders assuming they must make all the decisions and have all the answers, poor communication and secrecy, organizational silos, and lack of discipline and follow-through. All are failures of leadership.

As you encounter the early warning signs, you will need courage to take decisive and bold action to get the enterprise back on track. Often, this requires a rare blend of what we call “steel” (flexing to the hard edge of leadership, even if that is not a natural mode for you as a person) and smart use of people practices, such as unleashing the latent leadership potential of people throughout the organization, via what we call a culture of “stewards.”

In the end, we can avoid the breakdowns when we tap into the brilliant potential and goodwill of our team, aligning their work toward the organization’s purpose and vision, while guided by its shared values. Such resilience is the hallmark of triple crown organizations, and it can turn these challenges into amazing opportunities for transformation.

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!