An Impossible Challenge? For Corrections, Solving Complacency Starts With Culture

In the corrections industry and elsewhere across the working world, complacency remains a threat to nominal operations and a direct contributor to many longstanding issues. From a developmental perspective alone, growing too comfortable and “cruising” through one’s job can be harmful to professional progression. Potential health and safety issues, meanwhile, have greater chance to manifest in a workplace where complacent employees may willingly sidestep or unwittingly overlook policies designed to keep everyone safe.

Following that logic, certain fields would suffer more than others might from the presence of complacent employees. In the private sector, heavy regulation and built-in danger effectively give the issue more ways to manifest with greater impact. A tax accountant and law enforcement officer can both place the health and safety of everyone around them in danger with complacent behavior, but there is no question the latter role creates more opportunity for things to go harmfully or fatally wrong.

Thus, the hour-to-hour monotony and potential for quick flashes of violence inherent to corrections arguably make the field a vector for complacency’s worst outcomes. This fact reflects in the sheer number of headlines in which officials cite it as a direct factor in some disturbance. An incident in 2018, for example, left a correctional officer in Ohio hospitalized with multiple stab wounds while a tragic breakout attempt in 2017 ended with four North Carolina officers dead.

In this regard, the complacency correctional facilities must battle is no better or worse than that seen across the spectrum of criminal justice and public safety services,  but it is certainly unique, with elements and symptoms resembling those seen in healthcare (long hours, high stress, and strict protocol), or law enforcement (sustained interaction with dangerous, manipulative individuals). As history shows, it is a problem that comes out of nowhere, breaking through periods of relative operational calm with quick, devastating violence. This provides a compelling reason to address the issue as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Changing human nature: In addressing complacency, facilities face up against deeply held mental habits

Many readers of this article have likely experienced so-called “highway hypnosis.” This phenomenon, which occurs when a driver “blinks out” and drives a familiar route on autopilot, generally lasting until the person behind the wheel arrives at their destination, or an unfamiliar stimulus pulls them from their mental state. This stems from the brain’s natural need to create shortcuts. Instead of fully processing “new” information it has processed hundreds of times before, it models and automates the way we perceive the data, then feeds us the model when the need arises. This is, ultimately, what allows us to multitask, be it holding a conversation on the road or changing the song playing on our phone as we clean our workspace.

Kentucky Jailers Association (KJA) documented that a similar process develops when an employee handles the same working task multiple times over [PDF Link]. While necessary to baseline performance in any workplace, the document says, our brains sometimes apply the skill in a harmful manner. A jailer conducting a routine cell search might miss hidden contraband that should have been caught because of this phenomenon.

Mental modelling and automation are only one take on the complacency that can occur in the workplace, however. On a more conscious level, even valued employees may develop harmful shortcuts, conceptually understanding that they could have negative consequences, based on the thought that “I’m in control” and “it won’t happen to me.” Just as impactful, the document says, an employee with established processes may be less receptive to learning new ways, even if they do not outwardly think that way. Their brain, which has modeled a successful resolution to the task being retaught, may hold a natural resistance to redoing the processes it has already constructed despite the outward sense that one is willing to accept new data.

In tandem, these and other interrelated mental habits comprise a brain that can sometimes counteract officers and their employing facilities despite the best intentions of both. In the correctional environment, extended periods in which no stimuli cause officers to break out of the routines they have created only exacerbates the problem. The officer watching a busy dayroom may well think they are alert and ready to catch misbehavior, for instance, but miss the hand-off of contraband. A video by California’s POST council shows how similar circumstances could result in harm or death for correctional officers: with a “trustworthy” inmate with a homemade knife and a hidden grievance, it is easy to see how routine, “boring” days on the block turn deadly.

Addressing complacency through awareness, training

In all, the complacency correctional facilities and other workplaces encounter is coupled with various types of corner-cutting employees have effectively always engaged in. Because of this, it is fair to say no amount of funding or level of oversight would be enough to negate the presence of behaviors hardcoded into human biology. Any facility that could completely erase the risk of destructive and harmful events such as riots would have done so already.

As with any of the highly challenging balancing acts surrounding the corrections industry, the common-sense response is to change the factors within the facility’s control: creating awareness, instilling cultural change, and other measures that give staff the best possible preparation for an issue that is not entirely avoidable.

To some level, even this “simple” take may be difficult, judging by the continuum of problematic work beliefs and behaviors into which complacency ultimately plays. Per the KJA paper, factors that cause inattentive, complacent behavior in corrections employees include:

  • Conflicting stresses (e.g., being asked to serve as a helper and disciplinarian for inmates, or being asked to follow thorough rulesets to the fullest despite understaffing)
  • Exposure to traumatic imagery and situations (violence and threats against one’s family)
  • Excessive working hours
  • Destructive combination of high responsibility and low authority

At best, these are the kinds of situations with no easy answers, and they may be unanswerable.

Though written for the transport industry, expert safety consultant Larry Wilson’s take on “impossible” situations has value beyond the road. Applying his expertise to corrections, facilities must identify the factors needing addressed, consider which changes are within their power, and mirror their findings via alterations to the organization’s way of thinking. If this sounds dense, it is a pattern most businesses follow when instilling cultural change. In one article on the topic, he explains it as the difference between saying “that cord tripped me” and “I tripped over the cord because I was in a rush and didn’t see it.” The organization’s role, he says, is to get employees thinking in a manner consistent with the latter statement, which obviously shows a greater degree of accountability and safety consciousness.

Creating change on this level requires concerted effort on the organization’s part—ideally starting at onboard training courses—and substantial buy-in from the managers and others responsible for instilling the change. It will almost certainly require a deep situational look at the facility’s shortcomings regarding complacency. Combining information from the KJA paper with Wilson’s tips and other data (as noted), this may include:

  • Greater supervisor interaction and accountability. Officers are immediately and inherently more willing to do a good job, pay more attention, and act less complacent when they are doing it for a boss who commands respect. In particular, immediate supervisors may wish to work amongst the ranks as allowed by policy, occasionally stepping in to take on unpleasant, boring, or generally undesirable tasks.
  • “Complacency callouts”: Similar to the above section, well-liked employees can be an invaluable tool in instilling change. In this instance, having them observe and “call out” examples of bad behavior that could result in harm sets an example, addresses specific examples of complacent behavior, and contributes to the larger understanding that criticizing in this manner is okay when safety and indeed lives are on the line. Simply being able to confront one’s colleagues about unsafe behavior is a guiding aspect of culture in safety-concerned industries, and can have a transformative effect on the individual workplace.
  • Shorter cycles/less monotony: In general, the less time an employee is on a monotonous or otherwise boring task, the less likely they will be to make inattentive, complacent mistakes. Where possible, facilities should endeavor to keep employees in positions that invite complacent behavior for the shortest time possible, cycling them to more stimulating tasks on a regular basis instead. To reiterate a previous example, surveillance monitoring and general monitoring tasks both come with a high degree for monotony and potential for boredom.
  • Remove unnecessary conflict: The role conflict inherent to corrections has long been known to (and studied by) experts. When a job presents one with an impossible set of expectations, it is often easier to “check out” and do the minimum instead. Talking to a trusted, articulate employee about potential “impossible situations” they face can yield numerous points of improvement, the resolution of which can bring about a happier, more focused workforce.

Employees should be directly trained on complacency, its dangers, and its risks. Both the initial modules and periodic reminders should ideally be delivered via a modernized training/learning management solution, with records and results stored by the same system. Formalizing the process makes it easier to see which employees might need a reminder on the topic, empowers and informs disciplinary activity, and in general makes it easier to determine which employees are best suited to which tasks. This reduces the incidence of complacent behavior.

Conclusion: Complacency is a constant—but it can be slowed

Like an employee sleeping on the job, personnel caught in a cycle of complacent behavior have adapted a natural human behavior to the workplace in a counterproductive manner. For facilities, the challenges lies not in completely stopping the problem (an impractical goal), but deploying valid strategies that marry cultural change with awareness to the personnel on the front lines. As noted, ideal measures should also address operational flaws that may cause employees to act in a complacent manner, a strategy that is admittedly easier to share than to pull off.

Even with the challenge, the problems complacency can cause make any good faith effort in opposition worth it. In fact, with the litany of issues it creates, feeds into, or comes as a result, organizations that make the attempt may find themselves tackling some of the biggest pain points frontline employees face. In all, then, there are countless reasons a correctional facility might make the attempt—and a similarly long list of downsides that can occur when a powder keg environment continues to ignore the issue.


Posted on Jul 2, 2010