30 – ‘The better things are, the worse they feel’. How so?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         700 words

This is the title of a chapter in Richard Farson’s rather interesting book Management of the Absurd – Paradoxes in Leadership. Farson is a psychologist, author, and educator. He co-founded the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in 1958. His article on the ‘Failure-tolerant Leader’ is included in the HBR’s 10 Must-Reads on Leadership. He is a guy worth reading.

The idea that things feel worse when they are actually getting better appealed to me because of something a colleague said to me at work recently. She has been involved in implementing a number of changes to work rosters that has seen staff moved into different work activities or different work groups as part of a cross-skilling program. Her comment was that everyone is now upset and complaining and that morale has become worse. “We always had whingers but now we have people getting really involved in challenging what is happening and why”.

Farson says that managers expect their improvement efforts to result in satisfaction from those they try to help. He says they often do increase satisfaction– but not for long. The paradox is that ‘improvement in human affairs’ leads not to satisfaction but to discontent. The discontent, though, is ‘higher-order’ discontent than existed before. He cites Maslow as advising managers to ‘listen not to the presence or absence of complaints, but rather to what people are complaining about’. It is the quality or level of complaint that is important. In the least healthy organisations, Maslow says you will hear low-order complaining. For example, complaints about working conditions that affect them. In healthier organisations, there are higher-order complaints that extend beyond the person to more altruistic concerns. For example, safety standards or equity in decisions made. He says that very healthy organisations have ‘metagrumbles’ related to needs for self-actualisation. ‘My talents are not being recognised or used’. ‘I am not being engaged in decision making enough’.

Farson cites this as an absurdity. He says that only in an organisation where people are engaged and where their talents are being utilised would it occur to someone to complain about it. The test of management effectiveness is not whether or not there are complaints or if people are satisfied, but what is the quality of the discontent you have engendered. The manager’s job is to move people from low-order discontent to high-order discontent. He describes it as the ‘paradox of rising expectations’ – when something starts to improve, people start to expect more and they move up through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in their complaining.

My colleague has become concerned about this occurring. And in local government today, it is a legitimate concern. The level of satisfaction of staff and the community has become a key indicator of performance. And it is important, but is it measuring what people think it is? I once increased the service level for street tree pruning at a council that had previously only offered a very basic service. When people saw trees being pruned they rang the council to request pruning of the tree outside their home. The number of requests went through the roof and there was an enquiry into why the service was failing to meet community needs.

We have also become preoccupied with complaints as an indicator. The simple number is used to assess the performance of managers. I was once responsible for a waste service that had 7000 service requests or complaints a year. This was about 30% of the total number of such requests received by the council. Something had to be done!  But did it?  The waste service delivered over 3.5 million services each year. About half of the 7000 customer contacts were designed into the service model – i.e. residents had to advise if their bin needed repairing, we didn’t inspect them all. The others were legitimate failures of the service. It was a failure rate of 0.1% of services delivered.

If there is an absurdity in all this in local government, it is the simplistic way that we judge performance. We might call it listening to our staff or listening to the community (and we are). But is it telling us what we need to know?

Farson, Richard 1996. Management of the Absurd – Paradoxes in Leadership.