Malcontents

There is an important, under appreciated group at every company who are never content no matter how much success they or the company has had. There is a set of people who care so deeply about the company and its products that they take any shortcomings personally. They are offended by bad products and angered by cultural deficiencies. They write passionate notes that nobody asked for and rally people on comment threads in groups they aren’t required to be a part of. They speak truth to power because they are righteous and speak for those who might otherwise have no voice. They aren’t afraid to rock the boat no matter how much the people around them value stability and they can’t be bothered to do it politely. Adam Grant calls these people “Disagreeable Givers.” I call these people malcontents. And I am one of them.

We malcontents are often confused with entitled whiners but that’s a mistake. Whiners and Malcontents may share the same disagreeable tactics when it comes to complaining, but whiners have poor motivation whereas we malcontents have the best intentions. Whiners want to change the establishment for their own benefit. We malcontents want the establishment to change for its own benefit. Unlike whiners, we malcontents often make personal sacrifices to effect positive change (even if we would rather not be forced to). We often do valuable, unsexy, and sometimes underappreciated work like fixing bugs, improving tools or processes, and helping others. When you see large shifts in culture, organizations, or technology not driven by extrinsic or top down forces there is usually a malcontent behind the scenes or leading the charge.

The fate of malcontents is proof that good intentions and good work simply aren’t enough. Evaluating them exclusively on the impact of their work they are invariably promoted more slowly than their more polite peers. They get feedback constantly that they are doing good work but need to figure out how to do it without frustrating so many people. They are told they need to learn how to influence more effectively. To them it just feels like oppressive politics slowing them and the whole company down. I watched at Facebook as my peer group was consistently promoted a year or two ahead of me. I recall telling my manager at one point after a disappointing review that “this company is going to nice itself to death.” But niceness wasn’t hurting the company. I was. For every person who made me feel good about myself by clicking like on something inflammatory that I wrote there were ten people who quietly wrote me off. Not only did that erode my influence over time it also didn’t help me advance my agenda on whatever issue I was raising.

For the malcontents out there: my advice is to stop and listen to the feedback you are getting. Your team needs you to highlight the opportunities around them and I don’t want you to stop advocating for change but I can tell you from personal experience that your impact is being diluted by your approach. You’re loudly trying to make a change but the tactics you use are costly and only marginally effective. If people think are you are emotional or biased, they will dismiss you. If they think your mind is closed, they will close their own. If they think you are attacking them, they will defend. If you take too much of their time or energy relative to the size of the issue, they will avoid you in the future. Do not fall for the Golden Rule -- “Treat others as you wish to be treated” -- because nobody else wants to be treated as bluntly as you do. If you do that, you will end up frustrated and marginalized. Instead go for the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they wish to be treated. It is only in expressing your passion through openness, empathy, and relationship building that you can really start to create change at scale.

Instead of just fighting the establishment, you must co-opt it. Find things the people involved care about and frame your concerns in those terms. You can change what the organization cares about by degrees over time, not dramatically overnight. As Richard Hamming said : "By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life."

For those interacting with malcontents: embrace them. Nobody will care more or work harder on behalf of the people who use your product. Make space for them to raise all the concerns they have in an environment where it can be productive and recognize them for the value they bring in doing so when others are too polite to ask hard questions. And when necessary, try to make the cost of their clumsy communication as tangible a possible. Remind them of what their goal is in communicating and then show them how their approach was ineffective and coach them on a more effective approach.

I’m no less personally offended today by bad products or bad practices as I was years ago, but I’m much more effective at turning those emotions into impact. I’m not perfect at it and it isn’t hard to find examples where I’ve missed the mark, but now that I see how effective it can be to communicate more respectfully I find it much easier to do most of the time. I will always be grateful to Facebook for all the critical feedback and patience that got me to where I am. So today I try to pay it forward by identifying malcontents and giving them a little extra space and a lot of extra help.