Dissatisfaction is the starting point to success, so we should look for it and cherish its lessons.
In my work, I commonly come across this idea of ‘satisfaction’ as a driver in companies and organizations. Not only the all-too-important customer satisfaction but also employee satisfaction, shareholder satisfaction, and so on. All kinds of strange investments and appraisals take place towards assuring this modicum of happiness: from pinball machines in the office to paintball sessions, yoga groups, and other faits-divers. The same phenomena occur in more covert and even more mistaken ways: like firing less-than-perfect employees and hiring the Apollos and Athenas of tomorrow; or double-down on a failed operation. These initiatives actually miss the point and it’s usual that the ’satisfaction’ companies so many times strive for turns out to be skin-deep and be gone by next Monday. I find that unsatisfaction, and more importantly, dissatisfaction, are misunderstood concepts and are much more determinant of the fate of organizations than actual satisfaction. It would be better to address them: a fully satisfied company tends to be more in danger than an unsatisfied one, and yet dissatisfaction can paralyze, corrupt and corrode the relationships that are the pillars of success.
In Portuguese, ‘dissatisfaction’ and ‘unsatisfaction’ (not really a word, but a concept nonetheless) actually share the same designation: ‘insatisfação’. In English, however, the meanings are different. ‘Dissatisfaction’ means a lack of satisfaction, the feeling of grievance coming from disappointment, being unhappy and displeased, etc. ‘Unsatisfaction’ is a feeling of coming short, of being less than satisfied, of being incomplete, of not getting what you aimed for. So, it comes to reason that when we speak of missing goals, coming short of objectives, not fulfilling the needs of customers, we should be thinking of the latter: ‘unsatisfaction’ in companies and organizations. What I believe is crucial, though, is the former: ‘dissatisfaction’. In fact, the Portuguese word comes closer to what I mean: a situation when someone feels dissatisfied, uncomfortable, displeased, frustrated, scared, unsettled, enraged, aggressive, anxious, and/or depressed because of unsatisfying results or environment. This commonly leads to scapegoating, political intrigues, demotivation, disengagement, reduced productivity, and even (sorry to be so grim), eventually the implosion of the company. I’ve seen it happen.
Dissatisfaction has many different sources. Some of it comes from pressure. Too ambitious goals are sometimes set by management to promote higher productivity and motivation. I once had a Sales Manager saying to me that in order to have an achievement of 4 contracts in a month, we should set a goal of 6, so we can fail by 2. I accept that might motivate some, but it assures frustration for others who may see it as unreasonable.
I recently witnessed the case of a development team who embraced the task of creating a particular software for large clients that were already paying. So, the cash flow was there, the clients were eagerly awaiting and the concept was solid. Yet, the team missed every single ambitious deadline it set for itself, and through poor planning, under-resourcing and incompetent management dissatisfaction settled in in such a manner the whole project disintegrated in a year.
But soft, not ambitious enough goals can have the same effect. When studying the dynamics of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that when goals are too easy to achieve, people are equally dissatisfied. And I came across many professionals that jumped ship because they felt unchallenged and working beneath their potential.
But dissatisfaction can also happen in a satisfied company. Years ago, I worked in a company that was overall satisfied. Turnover was low, the client list was booming, and the fundamentals were firm. I was there the year they took the whole company to a ski resort in Spain to announce stellar results and increased salaries. But dissatisfaction was looming in the shadows. In a few months, people started leaving, me included. Within five years, the company had imploded and closed shop.
Wanting satisfaction in a company is great but looking for and identifying dissatisfaction is even better. Because dissatisfaction marks the spot. Dissatisfaction, whether in clients, employees, shareholders, or stakeholders, shows you where you can improve and be better. It should be understood and accepted as an inevitable part of life, but also as an alarm bell and guide towards a better future.