The State of Discontent: Three Strategies To Create a Culture of Satisfaction


For weeks on end, we’ve heard plenty of stories about employees quitting. According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor data, quit rates reached an all-time high earlier this year, at 2.7%, since the department began tracking the metric. And those resignations aren’t just playing a role in productivity and morale; they’re also digging into the pockets of organizations. Replacing one employee can cost one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary, according to Gallup.

When we studied the data on why so many employees were resigning, we found that employee discontent is rooted in the intrinsic need for status and autonomy, two essential drivers of human motivation. When employees feel their sense of status and autonomy are under threat—creating a physiological fight-or-flight response—they’re more motivated to quit.

If we think of contentment as a seesaw where there is a balance between threat and reward in the domains of status and autonomy, then in the State of Discontent, threat outweighs reward–and so much so that the seesaw becomes more like a catapult in which employees are launched away.

It’s incumbent upon leaders, then, to rebalance the seesaw and mitigate discontent. Here are three sustainable strategies to restore contentment and retain employees—from the front lines to C-Suite.

Create Buffers

Buffers are a way to mitigate threat before it can trigger a flight response. Take for example, someone who feels threatened by uncertainty about their current role. An effective buffer might be to have them create a list of near-term things that are certain and unlikely to shift. Similarly, an effective buffer for an employee who feels things are out of control would be to have them identify areas where they are empowered to exercise autonomy.

Provide Rewards

Knowing that people are leaving their jobs primarily due to the desire for more status and autonomy, managers can get creative and provide rewards in one domain to help reduce threats in another. If managers can’t provide certainty on a shift in company priorities because they have no information, they can send reward signals in a domain like relatedness, to impart a sense of belonging, allowing employees to feel they’re part of a shared experience. Using terms like “we” and “us” to describe challenges helps employees know they’re part of a group with a common goal. Ensuring people feel connected to a unified team is a powerful tool for managers when resources in other areas are strapped. Just remember to keep it positive: Commiserating destroys the positive impact of relatedness.

Assess the Organization Through a Human Lens

When organizations are in crisis—and the State of Discontent certainly constitutes a crisis for many organizations—leaders need to reassess the organization’s priorities. Envision what success looks like for your organization and your employees. Do your current priorities support that vision? Do you act on priorities concerning your workforce in the same timely manner and with the same resources as priorities concerning your products? Do shared, everyday habits of your organization reflect contented employees, or are systems in place that prevent contentment from taking hold? When using this perspective, you may find that your organization needs to refocus to help employees deliver what matters.

When looking through the clear lens of a truly human organization, you may find that your organization needs to refocus to help employees deliver what matters.  And with a clear reassessment, you’ll see where you need to create buffers and provide rewards so that you ultimately can retire the catapult, and rebalance the seesaw.

Authors: Sherilyn George-Clinton , Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T.

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