About thirteen years ago, I took a job editing medical journals for a small company in San Antonio, Texas. The woman who was tasked with training me sat me down on my first day to show me how she tracked article submissions and approvals. She pulled out a stenographer’s pad, a ruler, and a pencil, and proceeded to draw a grid on the paper. She labeled the columns and rows appropriately, and then handed me my own pad, pencil, and ruler to create my own log.
I sat there dumbfounded for a minute. Remember, I said this was only thirteen years ago—in the year 2000. I asked my coworker why she didn’t just use Microsoft Excel instead of drawing everything out by hand. Her response was, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
Since that day, that kind of rationale in the workplace has been a pet peeve of mine. Continuing to do something in a cumbersome, illogical, and inefficient way simply because that’s the way it’s always been done shows a lack of ingenuity and imagination. It also impedes innovation, an essential component of industry disruption.
If you’re going to make your mark in an industry, you don’t need someone on your staff who doesn’t question the norm. You need a productive malcontent.
What the Heck is a Productive Malcontent?
I first heard this term last month when I attended TEDx San Antonio along with nearly 500 other people. I’d only ever watched TED talks online, so it was great to be able to go in person and feel the energy in the room given off not only by the speakers, but the crowd.
While I enjoyed several of the talks, I was especially intrigued to hear Myric Polhemus, Human Resources Director at H-E-B (a Texas-based grocery chain) speak about vulnerable leadership and productive malcontents.
He told a story of embarking on a corporate-endorsed project, and then having the validity of that project challenged by one of his employees, the one he calls a productive malcontent. She went into his office and asked whether the project was moving too fast, and whether Polhemus had considered the increased workload the project would mean for all the department employees, and how that would be mitigated.
At first, Polhemus confided, he was annoyed. Why couldn’t she just go along like everyone else? Why did she have to be so damn difficult all the time? And then, he said, he allowed himself to be vulnerable and really think about what she had said. Rather than taking the “I’m the boss, and what I say goes” attitude, he opened himself up to the possibility she might be right—and realized she was.
Polhemus explained that he calls this employee a productive malcontent because, although she may seem to be a thorn in his side, constantly questioning and challenging, she’s also one of his smartest, most productive employees. She’s also different from the kind of malcontent who is contrary for the sake of being contrary.
Good Malcontent, Bad Malcontent
Look around, and most of the information you’ll find that focuses on malcontents tells you they’re to be “dealt with“, “handled”, “eliminated”, and generally quashed in the workplace. They’re a cancerous tumor to be cut out so the rest of your team can continue to function harmoniously. Sure, this is true in many cases. We’ve all worked with those people, right? The ones who are never satisfied with anything, who criticize the company and management on a daily basis, and who never seem able to cooperate with their coworkers.
The difference between a run-of-the-mill malcontent and a productive malcontent is the source of that malcontentedness, how it’s expressed, and what results it generates.
It’s long been my feeling that unless you have an alternative solution to offer, you don’t get to complain about something you don’t like. You don’t agree with management’s latest decision? Fine. How would you do it differently? No ideas? Then be quiet and do your job until you have something of value to contribute. Complaining for the sake of complaining helps no one, and has no place in a business.
But think about the word malcontent for a moment and what it really means. It’s someone who’s not satisfied with the status quo, who sees a need and opportunity for change, and is quite often the catalyst for that change.
Add to that someone who does their job—and does it well—and you have a productive malcontent.
As annoying as she may have seemed, the H-E-B employee’s intentions were good. Had she not questioned what was going on, and had Polhemus not opened himself up to being challenged in that way, the project may have failed, or caused difficulty for the department. Instead, because she raised concerns and he listened to her, he got together with his team, and they made some changes to how the project was being carried out, resulting in much more effective execution, and a much happier team.
When that employee does challenge him, it’s with good intent, and with the offer of possible alternatives. And as was demonstrated by the story Polhemus shared, she’s very often right.
I think this example makes a lot of sense not just for managers, but for business owners and entrepreneurs. If you have someone like this on your team, are you allowing yourself to be vulnerable to their criticism in order to make positive changes? Or are you simply stifling them, and writing them off as a troublemaker or saboteur?
Business as Usual is Bad Business
Now, consider for a moment what might have happened if Polhemus’s employee were like my former steno pad-loving coworker. What if the H-E-B employee had not just kept her ideas to herself, but not even bothered to try to come up with new ideas, or new ways to do something? What if she had contented herself with doing things the way they’d always been done? What if Polhemus had blown her off and continued down the original path?
Few people start a business to maintain the status quo. Yes, you may see potential demonstrated by other successful businesses, but if you’re going to do things exactly the same way, or offer exactly the same product, you may as well just get hired by that company rather than take on the burden of starting your own.
Conversely, if you turn a deaf ear to your productive malcontents, they will inevitably leave your company to find a job where they’re heard and their opinions are valued. Or, you may just find yourself with a new competitor in the marketplace when your former employee starts their own business.
Productive Malcontents as Entrepreneurs
Despite its reputation as one of the top business schools in the country, Harvard didn’t always treat its entrepreneurial alumni very well. By the school’s own admission, entrepreneurship was considered by Harvard for many years to be a “personality defect,” and the general consensus was that an entrepreneur was “a chronic malcontent.”
While Harvard’s attitude toward its entrepreneurs may have changed, that sentiment is actually still quite true, only with a less negative connotation. How many entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs out of frustration with their job, company, or industry? How many people start their own companies so they can do things differently?
The appeal of being your own boss isn’t just taking vacation when you want, or not having to report to anyone. A big part of it is being able to do things the way you think they should be done, and not having anyone tell you “no,” something a productive malcontent hears a lot. Matt Mickiewicz, co-founder of 99Designs, has said, “The best disruptors are outsiders.”
So yes, starting a business, taking a different approach, finding a point of difference, and potentially disrupting an industry are all very appealing.
The thing is, you may not always be the one with all the ideas anymore.
You, as a productive-malcontent-turned-entrepreneur, may very well find yourself on the other side of the problem you faced as an employee. You may discover your own productive malcontent on your team. How you choose to handle it can set the tone for your business, and mean the difference between status quo and disruptor.
Until you can admit that, and be open to accepting the ideas of your productive malcontents, you may be denying yourself and your business a whole new level of success. Rather than disrupting your industry, and taking your place as an industry leader, you’ll have to settle for being lost in a sea of competitors, lookalikes, and wannabes, and becoming the very thing you were trying to escape—just another corporate stooge.
(When TEDx San Antonio posts video from the 2013 event, you should be able to find the talk by Myric Polhemus here, as well as many other interesting talks!)
Image Credit: Shutterstock Minerva Studio
Michelle Lowery is a digital content and SEO educator and consultant specializing in on-page optimization and affiliate marketing. She's the author of one editing book, and is writing her first cozy novel. When she's not working, she's building a pollinator garden in her back yard, reading, playing with her two dogs, or trying a new taco joint in her home city of San Antonio, TX.