What is the fat cat syndrome? Here are a few definitions:
- The state of mind one possesses when one becomes so successful, he/she disregards the inefficiencies and lost opportunities
- Fat cat is a political term originally describing a rich political donor, also called an angel or big money man
- The fat cat syndrome is categorized by an overriding passion for position and power
I think the most appropriate description comes from Adam Grant:
“What’s the best time to shake things up? In most workplaces, it happens when you’re struggling. When the chips are down, you’re desperate, and you have nothing to lose by taking some risks. But by then, it’s often too late. You don’t have the resources to run bold experiments. The evidence suggests that the best time to shake things up is actually when you’re doing well. That’s when you have the time, energy and freedom to innovate. But sadly, research shows that success often makes us complacent. Experts call it the “fat cat syndrome.” Think about a time when you’ve been at the top of your game. Did you really want to embrace something radically different? Of course not. You probably became overconfident in your recipe and resistant to try new things.“
I am seeing this fat cat syndrome daily being present in individuals, organizations, cities and countries. Especially this happens in the ‘western’ world. Things are good and most people do everything to protect this situation. They want others to change, but are not willing to change themselves. It has become a national sport to point at others. Looking into the mirror only happens to fuel vanity.
Employees as well as managers are even sabotaging new initiatives and innovations to protect their jobs or position. Gary Hamel has written a report about ‘The $3 Trillion Prize for Busting Bureaucracy’ (and how to claim it). This epidemic of bureaucracy is being kept alive to mask underlying inefficiencies. I hear so many examples about the reluctance to change. For example, a provider of simulation software for recruiting finds HR folks blocking the roll out, as it will diminish their status. University professors agree with the need to teach skills rather than knowledge, but make no attempt to change the curriculum in their educational institution. A Depression Foundation is not interested in how to reduce stress and depression as that will reduce their influence and possibly donations.
The result of being in this ‘mode of protection’ is that you become complacent and fail to notice trends that will impact both your business and your lifestyle.
Tyler Cowen recently wrote a book about it, The Complacent Class:
He says that complacency means if you cease being challenged and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them.
This complacency is reflected in the culture of organizations, cities and countries. And similarly, in the mindset of individuals.
“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” ~ Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel
Manifestations of this complacency are expressions like:
- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (Leave something alone; avoid attempting to correct, fix, or improve what is already sufficient)
- “I am comfortable now”
- “We have always done it that way.”
Then people become so caught up in their bubble that they lose perspective. And many become more focused on personal wellbeing (ego) rather than societal or planetary wellbeing.
In his book, De nieuwe wereldorde, Rob de Wijk mentions that since 2000 there has been stagnation in incomes in the Western world. He mentions a McKinsey research (‘Poorer than their parents) that from 2005 to 2014 in 25 developed countries, the income of 2/3 of the population stagnated or declined. This should be quite alarming.
But many folks in a position of power (the ‘fat cats’) don’t notice this trend and even if they do, many seem not to care.
“Urgency is what’s demanded by young activists. But they’re met with crumbling complacency.” ~ Eve Livingston
Then they are surprised why populist movements have become ‘suddenly’ so popular.
In essence that is just a result of their own ostrich behavior. This is a classic case of denial: I don’t believe this will happen to me. Well, it is already happening, NOW!
As long as there is no pain, there is no urge to change. However, when you start feeling the pain you might be too late to address the root causes of the pain.
Pain is the strongest driver of change. Cost, loss, and pain are the most effective motivators for change. Somehow people and organizations are so internally focused that they don’t want to notice outside things that might disrupt the status quo. They don’t want to be faced with the fear of losing what they have.
What can be done to prevent the fat cat becoming so fat that it can’t move anymore?
I think that there are these cycles where you first improve your conditions (assuming that you start with humble beginnings), then you enjoy the fruits of your labor and then you become complacent and ultimately things will go downhill. It is a cycle like all of life (and nature) is.
You can break out of this cycle by opening your eyes (globally). And it is crucial to bring in outsiders and generalists whose perspective is not clouded with your habits. And you need to move fast and take serious action, before it is too late.
Innovation is a must, not a fad!
Are you waking up? Are you disrupting yourself, before someone else is doing it? It is up to you.
About the author: Arnold Beekes is an innovation leader, founder/CEO of startups, certified trainer/coach, author, and speaker.