Ralf Lanwehr – We need naggers and grumblers on the job

25. August 2022 – Ralf Lanwehr

Because they help make the company fit for the future. Three tips for success on how we can constructively argue with them at work.

The wishes from management to the workforce often go like this: “We want proactive people who are courageous, make intelligent mistakes and think entrepreneurially. Unfortunately, the reality is often different. That’s a total shame, because we’re not ripping anyone’s head off!”

I always wince a little then. First of all, management has probably contributed more to this situation than the workforce. Secondly, people in management are often unaware of this. And third, this is obviously a very sensitive topic. After all, no one likes to be confronted with their own shortcomings. But how did it actually get this far?

Commitment as an indicator of success

A look at the research on job satisfaction helps to explain this. The results are more complex than they appear at first glance. There is only a minimal correlation between job satisfaction and job performance, and that is strange. You have to let it roll off your tongue.

Armies of consultancies, motivational gurus, and chakka people tell you about the power of positive psychology, the delights of New Work, and the fruits of flow – and then somehow it’s all supposed to be completely useless? Yes and no. It’s worth looking at a different construct: engagement. Job satisfaction may not be closely related to job performance, but engagement, by contrast, is a pretty excellent indicator of success. The explanation for this? Research has long struggled to fathom this seemingly contradictory finding.

But now, with the help of a foray into stress theory, we know quite a bit about it. Stress is the result of a two-step assessment process. In the first step, we check whether there is a gap between aspiration and reality. However, it is the second assessment that is decisive for the development of stress: Can I close the gap? Do I have situational control? Or am I completely helpless in the face of the problem?

The four forms of job satisfaction

1) Stabilized satisfaction

If the current situation in the job fits wonderfully to the own expectations, the answer turns out positively. There is a stabilized satisfaction. Everything is in perfect order: The person is satisfied and shows this through a lot of commitment. Stably satisfied employees form the backbone of the company and make an extraordinary contribution to organizational efficiency. If there is a problem somewhere and it is urgent, it is highly likely that it will be precisely the stably satisfied employees on whom a company can rely. They show a high level of commitment even in situations in which they would actually not necessarily be responsible. They recognize work and help out on their own initiative where it is necessary. They are the stably satisfied ones who step in even if a weekend has to be sacrificed because they like their work and do exactly what they want to do.

2) Constructive dissatisfaction

Now life is not a concert of wishes, sometimes clouds gather and there is a gap between wish and reality. Then it comes to the decisive second evaluation: Can I change the things that stink to me? Yes or no? When I believe I can influence my own destiny, I take my heart in my hands and run. Out comes constructive dissatisfaction. If you ask such people about their satisfaction, a negative answer follows, like “I am not satisfied with my work because XY annoys me. However, I believe that some of these issues will change in the future.” These are the complainers mentioned in the title.

Of course, these people are getting on the boss’s nerves at that moment. Of course, no one “actually” has the time. And of course, such objections always come at an inopportune time. Nevertheless, one should listen, pay attention and think of solutions. Constructive dissatisfaction is by no means a bad thing; on the contrary, it is often a very good sign. And that is the crux of the matter: Constructively dissatisfied employees actively try to change something about their situation. They not only express what they don’t like, but come up with suggestions on how to solve it. They develop ideas for other ways of doing things. They are creative in finding solutions that help both the company and themselves. Constructively dissatisfied employees may (unsurprisingly) be dissatisfied, but they are exceptionally engaged and are a critical factor in organizational innovation. Thus, while the stably satisfied provide efficiency, the constructively dissatisfied are important for innovation and change in the organization.

3) Fixed dissatisfaction

Now, constructively dissatisfied people do not remain endlessly in this stage. They do not expect everything to change according to their expectations. But they do expect to be listened to, that there is a recognizable effort, that there is a general attentiveness. Psychology calls this “voice.” In any case, after unsuccessful attempts at change, constructively dissatisfied people question themselves and their environment. If the strategies taken to change the situation remain ineffective in the long run, one’s own voice fades away and the gap between aspiration and reality still exists, at some point the second evaluation will be different. Then it seems unrealistic that one can change the situation oneself. The assessment that one has situational control is revised. What remains is a feeling of powerlessness. The result? An escape reaction, which can be either objective or subjective.

A person who perceives his or her own situation as bad and unchangeable can, on the one hand, objectively flee into fixed dissatisfaction. This state is characterized by clearly outwardly expressed displeasure, by “working to rule” and by a considerably reduced level of commitment. Very little can be expected from the fixated dissatisfied. Work performance collapses massively because the employee has more or less openly come to terms with his or her own job. Alternatives are considered or a retreat into inner resignation takes place. Why people in such a situation find themselves more often in the public sector than in the private sector is a question we can discuss elsewhere. However, such a situation is regrettable in any case, and everyone involved loses.

4) Resigned satisfaction

The other way of dealing with a situation that is perceived as deficient but unchangeable is subjective escape, i.e., “talking oneself out of the situation. In technical jargon this is called “intrapsychic adaptation to reduce cognitive dissonance”. This is resigned satisfaction, and it is extremely unfavorable from all perspectives. Moment. Resignative SATISFACTION? That’s right. Contentment. Imagine that you would actually like to see various changes, because there are considerable gaps between the current state of things and how you would actually like them to be. Unfortunately, you cannot change anything to contribute to an improvement. And for lack of alternatives you can’t escape either.
You are trapped, cannot get out and have no control over the situation. This is very unfortunate and requires a reaction. That is why these people start manipulating their own perception. Such manipulation can be done in two ways. First, by presenting one’s own ACTUAL situation in a more favorable light: “Of course, all that glitters is not gold here either. But my colleagues are quite nice, my salary is paid on time, I’m represented on the new sales committee, and I get to attend a conference in three weeks. And although I still don’t have budget responsibility, I do get to make some minor decisions. That’s actually not so bad for a start.”

So the principle is to play up the positives a bit and downplay the negatives. In this way, the current situation is artificially portrayed as better than it actually is in “unadulterated” perception. As a result, the gap between aspiration and reality becomes somewhat smaller, and the need for change appears less urgent and dramatic.

The alternative – or parallel – way is to artificially downplay the SHOULD. This might sound like this: “I should be glad that I have a job at all in the current pandemic/financial crisis/catastrophe. After all, most people would be happy if they were allowed to be in my situation. I really have to let the chips fall where they may. Besides, I simply can’t expect to be promoted again after only three years. The colleague in the neighboring department has been waiting considerably longer. Not everything about the company is bad. Our products are quite interesting, I have enough vacation time, and the commute is within reasonable limits.” Then the too low salary, the horrible boss, the missing career possibilities, the monotonous activity or the like more remain unmentioned.

The resignative job satisfaction contains thus in the core a self illusion, because one talks oneself the situation artificially from two sides beautifully: The TARGET is screwed down and the ACTUAL is at the same time exaggerated, until in the result the former TARGET-ACTUAL difference melted together in miraculous way. But does this solve the problems? No, not at all. And therein lies the crux. If you ask such a person how satisfied he or she is with the job, you will get a less than enthusiastic but nonetheless clearly positive signal: “Yes, thank you for asking, I am very satisfied with my job, everything is fine.” Nevertheless, dissatisfaction gnaws just beyond the reach of artful self-deception. This costs time and nerves, because a fair amount of energy has to be spent on continuing to settle into the self-constructed oasis of well-being. Every day anew. Over and over again. Resignedly satisfied employees show a significantly reduced commitment, are sick more often and perform less. This serves no one. Not the people, because their own situation has simply been reinterpreted in the face of unsolved problems and therefore actually continues to be depressing. And not the company either, because it has a workforce that remains far below its own capabilities and seems strangely subdued in the workplace.

Dissatisfaction makes for a better future

Given these four very different forms of job satisfaction, it is hardly surprising that no significant correlation between job satisfaction and job performance can be found empirically, although commitment and job performance do correlate closely. It is the stably satisfied as well as the constructively dissatisfied who, through their high level of commitment, are largely responsible for the efficiency and innovative strength of a company. And it is the fixated dissatisfied as well as the resignedly satisfied who, through their significantly reduced commitment, generate considerably little added value and paralyze the company.

That’s why it’s also clear why we should value the complainers and why a change in thinking must take place. Although they are inconvenient. Although they are annoying. Even though it doesn’t fit right now. The bottom line is that they are the ones who help us to be fit for the future.
Here are three tips for a constructive conflict culture

  1. A healthy amount of factual conflict is demonstrably positively associated with all kinds of positive effects. Most often, it reveals an inverted U-shaped relationship. Friction is good. Grave silence is bad, so is complete chaos. Give the grumblers a chance.
  2. Make sure it’s about the matter at hand and don’t take anything personally. Conflicts of fact are those where you represent different opinions. There is always the danger of escalation. One word leads to another and the party starts. Such emotional relationship conflicts are always a very bad idea. Clarify emotional conflicts as friendly and direct as possible to find back to the factual level. So get the complainers off the palm tree and don’t climb up there yourself.
  3. Listen carefully. Take your time. Thank people for their criticism. If people are critical of you, that’s a good sign, not a bad one. No one will expect you to be able to do everything right away. But make an effort. Thank the complainers honestly for the feedback and explain to them that in the long run everybody wins.

    Because when the constructively dissatisfied fall silent, it gets dark.


    De Dreu, C. K. (2006). When too little or too much hurts: Evidence for a curvilinear relationship between task conflict and innovation in teams. Journal of Management, 32(1), 83-107.

    Lanwehr, R., Staar, H., & Voelpel, S. C. (2017). Spielfeld Arbeitsplatz: Managementwissen mit Kick. Für Führungskräfte und engagierte Mitarbeiter, 2. Auflage. John Wiley & Sons.y & Sons.

Prof. Dr. Ralf Lanwehr

The Coach of the Bundesliga Coaches - Expert for Leadership, Culture & Change