Squeaky Wheels Lube the Engines of Production

That's right: grumpy workers are better problem solvers than their cheerful coworkers. But let's be clear, it's not the terminally cranky; it's the occasionally grumpy that make most of the progress according to research at Rice University by Jing Zhou, associate professor of management.

Her research indicates that employees who experience periodic bad moods are more detail-oriented and are better problem solvers. In my book, Motivate Everyone, I explored these mindsets: big picture versus detail and achievers versus problem solvers.

"Happy, cheerful folks tend to think things are going well," she says. They can't anticipate problems or see the tarpits until they fall in one. As George Bernard Shaw said: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

My mom is 82 and lives in a retirement community. She sees every way the staff could improve. The dining room staff started having meetings from 11:30 to 11:40 when they're supposed to start serving at 11:30. How stupid is that? She suggested they meet from 11:20 to 11:30 (and about a hundred other obvious things).

Learn to love your occasionally grumpy employees and customers. They're a gold mine of productivity and progress if you've got the guts to listen to them.

Research Bias

Zhou says that most creativity research is what I would call lab rat not real world oriented. You throw people in a room, show them a funny video to get them in a good mood and then give them a challenge. What's the problem with that? It's not the real world.

Zhou went to an oil-field services company and had managers rank employees and their creativity. The Pollyanna's and the Grinches aren't much help improving operations, but the occasionally cranky take the time to find ways make things better.

Motivation Styles

In Motivate Everyone, I talk about the three styles in any team: Dreamers, Realists and CriticsDreamers alone can't get anything done. Critics can see what's wrong, but they rarely fix it. Realists make things happen, but can't always envision the future or anticipate the tar pits.

According to the original NLP research on motivation styles, only about 20 percent of the population combine the talents of a Dreamer-Realist or Critic-Realist. To create the future, you want Dreamer-Realists who can envision a future and make it happen.

To tune up the present, you want Critic-Realists who can identify problems, anticipate tar pits and implement creative ways to prevent or avoid them. In doing so, they simplify, streamline and mistakeproof production. Result? More productivity and profitability and greater growth.

Here's My Point

Fire your whiners, but liberate the periodically grumpy or cranky employees who habitually tinker and fine tune your methods of production. To paraphrase Shaw: All progress depends on the grumpy employee. They take the time to fix or prevent problems. Isn't that the nature of creativity--solving problems?

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