Don’t Let Com­pla­cen­cy Derail Your Career


All of us want to show up to work, set­tle in, and do our jobs well. But what hap­pens when that com­fort turns into com­pla­cen­cy? Accord­ing to Carter Cast, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at the Kel­logg School, indi­vid­u­als who have grown too com­fort­able may not feel safe and secure for long — on the con­trary, they may be on track to derail them­selves professionally.

Cast, the author of The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Bril­liant Careers Are Made — and Unmade, refers to peo­ple who have become com­pla­cent and resis­tant to change as “Ver­sion 1.0” employ­ees who tend to lack curios­i­ty, avoid tak­ing risks, and want things to stay the same.

Indeed, in the mod­ern work envi­ron­ment, fail­ure to adapt can be lethal.

“You have to find ways to stay fresh, espe­cial­ly in this day and age with the mas­sive rate of change in tech­nol­o­gy,” Cast says. “Dis­rup­tion is every­where.”

So what steps can you take to keep Ver­sion 1.0 ten­den­cies from inter­fer­ing with your career progress? Cast offers five tips.

Under­stand the New Job
Many peo­ple find that they have trou­ble adapt­ing after get­ting a big pro­mo­tion.

“They get pro­mot­ed and their boss thinks, ‘They’re so good, they got pro­mot­ed. They’re going to be fine,’” Cast says. But in real­i­ty, new posi­tions come with dif­fer­ent demands and dif­fer­ent ways to eval­u­ate suc­cess. So, when you are new­ly pro­mot­ed, it is impor­tant to keep in mind that what worked in your old job will very like­ly not be the suc­cess­ful for­mu­la for the new job.

As a new­ly pro­mot­ed employ­ee, you should take time to learn your supervisor’s expec­ta­tions. “Ask the boss: ‘With this new job, what will I have done in two years to make you think that this was a good move to pro­mote me? What are the key suc­cess met­rics I should be aim­ing for?’”Cast says.

“I want to con­stant­ly be fig­ur­ing out ways to feel like I’m learn­ing new skills and gain­ing new knowledge.”

Cast rec­om­mends that after receiv­ing a pro­mo­tion, you should also reach out to oth­ers who have made a sim­i­lar tran­si­tion as a way to under­stand both the position’s and the organization’s expec­ta­tions. “Ask them, ‘What were the biggest chal­lenges when you moved to this lev­el? What advice would you give me about this tran­si­tion? Which depart­ments and peo­ple are crit­i­cal for me to align with?’”

Yet get­ting hon­est advice from peers is not always easy. As a per­son takes on more senior roles, they not only receive less feed­back, but also receive less “real” feed­back, since they are now the boss, or close to it, and some cowork­ers may feel con­flict­ed about being can­did with a col­league to whom they may report in the future.

Nev­er­the­less, you should seek it out if you want to be suc­cess­ful in your new posi­tion — and if you hope to receive anoth­er pro­mo­tion down the line.

Increase Your Learn­ing Agility
Cast recalls meet­ing a sales man­ag­er who refused to under­stand social-media plat­forms to find new clients, believ­ing that those plat­forms were the domain of the mar­ket­ing team. “He said, ‘I don’t need to under­stand all this social-mar­ket­ing mum­bo jum­bo. Sell­ing is a face-to-face activ­i­ty. It’s a con­tact sport.’ I said, ‘Real­ly? With all the lead gen­er­a­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties that dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing pro­vides, you don’t real­ly need to under­stand and uti­lize it?’”

Like many Ver­sion 1.0 peo­ple, that sales man­ag­er lacked what Cast calls “learn­ing agili­ty,” or the abil­i­ty to quick­ly devel­op and apply new skills. Learn­ing agili­ty is espe­cial­ly cru­cial for those seek­ing senior man­age­ment posi­tions. Most suc­cess­ful man­agers are con­stant­ly exper­i­ment­ing with new ideas, learn­ing from cus­tomers and com­pe­ti­tion. They are also reflec­tive, in that they crit­i­cal­ly exam­ine their past efforts and seek feed­back from oth­ers in order to improve.

But this trait may dimin­ish as peo­ple reach mid-career. This is a time where being com­fort­able doing things the same way you always have can mean falling into a rut. So how do you keep what Cast calls a “beginner’s mind­set”?

Here, Cast likes to quote LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s max­im: “It helps to con­sid­er your­self in a con­stant state of beta.”

This means forc­ing your­self to acquire new skills that could help you down the road. If you work in sales, for exam­ple, you might take time to under­stand how the mar­ket­ing team lever­ages its social mar­ket­ing assets.

Hon­ing this dis­cov­ery mind­set need not be lim­it­ed to the work­place, either. Some­thing as sim­ple as tak­ing a new route to work, or hav­ing lunch with a col­league you don’t know well, might chal­lenge you to think differently.

Iden­ti­fy Your Areas of Innate Resistance
Is there a par­tic­u­lar top­ic, or a par­tic­u­lar col­league, that you seem to bris­tle at con­stant­ly? If so, then you may have what Cast deems an “area of innate resis­tance.” “That’s prob­a­bly a growth area that you need to look at,” he says.

If those areas not addressed, they can sti­fle career growth. For one, dis­agree­ing with a par­tic­u­lar per­son or idea too often can make you seem unap­proach­able and unwill­ing to con­sid­er col­leagues’ ideas. Fur­ther­more, Cast warns, hav­ing a large num­ber of these trig­gers means you might be spend­ing too much time and ener­gy on what you already know, and not enough time being open to what you could learn.

Cast often tells stu­dents about the idea of a learn-to-lever­age ratio, or the time you spend learn­ing rel­a­tive to the time you spend lever­ag­ing what you already know. Ear­ly in your career, Cast says, your learn-to-lever­age ratio should be about 70:30. Lat­er in your career, your ratio may move clos­er to 60:40 — but it should not stray below that, Cast warns.

“I want to con­stant­ly be fig­ur­ing out ways to feel like I’m learn­ing new skills and gain­ing new knowledge.”

Fight against Risk-Aversion
Ver­sion 1.0 types tend to be risk-averse peo­ple. While atten­tion to detail and risk mit­i­ga­tion are crit­i­cal con­cepts, risk aver­sion can be par­a­lyz­ing in a busi­ness con­text, where try­ing new things — and fail­ing — are inher­ent in any job.

“Ver­sion 1.0 peo­ple need to adopt the ‘lean think­ing’ men­tal­i­ty in order to refresh their think­ing and test new ideas,” Cast says. “[Ama­zon CEO] Jeff Bezos runs test pilots and A/B tests con­stant­ly, devel­op­ing hypothe­ses and pro­to­types and then test­ing them rapid­ly with cus­tomers and in test markets.”


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