Can Employee Dissatisfaction Actually Be a Good Thing?

Blogs / September 18, 2018

I was walking through the office last week towards the end of the day. It was one of those strange moments when the constant chatter of the sales floor had quieted, the marketing team was focused on finishing up their daily projects, and for whatever reason, the music volume was very low. All this to say, it was suddenly quiet. Then from across the room, I heard someone blurt out: “NO, I’M NOT SATISFIED!”

Needless to say, heads turned, and the silence was broken. But it got me thinking. What does it mean to be satisfied at work? And could it be a good thing to be dissatisfied?
I’ll be honest, even just asking the question felt kind of strange. I strive to make all my employees feel supported. I want them to be happy at work and not dread waking up in the morning. I wrote down the question and promised myself I’d do some serious thinking on it later.

Why do we need satisfied employees?

The answer to this seems to be common sense. Satisfied employees tend to be happier, and happier employees tend to work harder. If you’re happy at work you’ll come in on time and go the extra mile when a project demands it. There’s the idea that satisfied employees tend to want to advance the company’s mission. And finally, there have been many studies that connect profitability to companies that try to create great places to work.

All great points. But I got to thinking about what satisfaction really means. It means you have everything you need. You don’t want anything more. You could “take it or leave it”.

What is satisfaction?

What really started to bug me was this idea, popping up in articles and blogs , that satisfied employees tend to be complacent. The idea is that, once you’ve been given everything you want, you’ll ease in, relax, and slow down. Quality can slip, and productivity can drop. Although I was not completely satisfied with this idea, there seemed to be a good point buried in there:

If you hold something back from your employees, they will strive to get it. It kind of clicked. People only want what they don’t have! Or put another way, it’s impossible to want what you already have. It’s not greed. It’s human nature.

And let’s be honest. Has it ever been any other way, in the entire history of the freaking world?

Is there a good kind of dissatisfaction?

I was starting to see how dissatisfaction could be a good thing. It makes employees want to do better. It encourages them to improve the sequences and systems they use every day. And to come and talk to managers about problems they’re having. It also makes people want to move up to higher levels within your company.

The problem that every employer has is creating the right kind of dissatisfaction. It takes a bit of subtlety.

Conclusion:

You don’t want unhappy, miserable, bitter employees. That’s a recipe for high turnover and low productivity. So it’s still important to support your employees and make sure they feel needed in the workplace. But what you want to foster is a sense that they could achieve more. That what they have is not enough.

It’s important to create structures that make employees feel like they should be doing better. This doesn’t mean telling them they’re bad at their job. It means making them want to push themselves and go the extra mile for the company. It means creating benevolent rivalries that are nonetheless very competitive. It means opening your door and listening to what employees want. Making it clear that they should not only want to do their job better but that they should want more from their job.

It sounds crazy but it makes sense. You need employees to feel just enough frustration and dissatisfaction. Too much and you’ll lose them. Not enough and they’ll stagnate. Then you’ll lose them for real. It’s a balancing act.


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