Managers Need Not Smother Employee Discontent

Employee discontent? The impulse is to smother it. Organizations are afraid of it. Is it squelched in your team of service providers from time to time? Perhaps it is a clue that something needs attention.

It is not easy to embrace discontent, though. Organizations must maintain a sense of stability—the reason an “organization” exists. So, psychological barriers against discontent are natural. We resist disturbance. Established interests are, well, established. Discontent places people outside their comfort zones, which makes discontent a Pandora ’s Box—DO NOT OPEN!

The instant a team member is discontent and begins to question something there is a disturbance. Uncomfortable disturbance. But, heart-felt, appropriate discontent reflects an initiative, which may well generate something quite extraordinary: creativity.

Creativity often sprouts from the soil of discontent.

By the 1980’s Corning Glass had cornered the U.S. market for catalytic converters in cars. Catching them by surprise, a Japanese company produced a product that worked better at a lower price. Auto manufacturers put Corning on notice. It disturbed Corning, to say the least. They were forced to initiate a massive effort to beat that Japanese company. They succeeded. Corning’s forced discontent created a company-wide initiative that resulted in a creative solution: a superior product at a lower price.

But why didn’t the people at Corning develop this wonderful new product earlier? Contentment, no doubt; content in an ostensibly lucrative position. Like many contented monoliths [here insert any one of many well-known companies who have slipped in recent decades], Corning employees did not possess a creative discontent fostering the initiative to create their new product—until they tottered on the precipice of financial disaster. New ideas, new perspectives were buried beneath the contentment of (profitable) routine.

Two questions for teams of service providers:

  1. Is there benefit to a manager striking the spark of discontent among employees?
  2. What’s the price of not doing so?

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