Positive Discontent

December 18 2023
By: Shawn M. Galloway

Two safety strategies never work; one is doing nothing, and the other is trying to maintain the status quo. There is no stasis in safety. Improvement will always be possible. Only our thinking limits us. All progress begins by thinking differently and sharing those thoughts with others. Beliefs govern behavior, and language shapes culture. Is the language being used to discuss safety performance hindering or helping to progress further?

What language is shaping your safety culture? Language is a powerful tool for shaping and expressing ideas. It influences how people perceive the world, interact with each other, and construct their reality. The late linguist and professor Derek Bickerton believed that Homo erectus first developed language for scavenging, as it was necessary for survival.1 Words were created to give abstract concepts meaning and enable sharing our thoughts with others. Terms provide a shared language, enabling effective communication and understanding among individuals or within a community. They help convey specific meaning, reducing ambiguity and fostering clarity in discussions about concepts, objects, or ideas - ideas like safety improvement will always be possible.

3 wood blocks stacked on a table, with the words 'Never stop improving'

Preparing to deliver a keynote for Cintas Corporation, I was provided two books written by the late CEO, Richard Farmer. In his 2010 book, The Spirit Is The Difference, I learned about the elements that make up Cintas's corporate character. The one that stood out and is worth sharing is Positive Discontent. Farmer described this term: "We are never satisfied with the status quo. We constantly strive to improve the process, the systems, the products, and the service. We have a sense of positive discontent at Cintas-a constructive discontent focused on making things better than they are. We are not grumblers and complainers. But we are constantly looking for opportunities to improve in everything we do."2

Author Mark Sanborn defines this philosophy as being "…positive about what you've accomplished but don't become content. Keep pushing to make your best better."

The Spirit is the Difference, Cintas booklet

Positive discontent is a constructive dissatisfaction that motivates individuals or organizations to seek improvement actively. In the context of safety, the idea of positive discontent can be a driving force for continuous enhancement. By fostering this mindset, people are encouraged to identify new potential risks, evaluate existing safety procedures, and explore new innovative solutions.

By strategically using language to shape communication and interactions within the organization concerning safety performance, leaders can be pivotal in driving culture change and fostering a positive and aligned workplace culture focused on the belief that continuous improvement will always be possible.

"Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation." — Oscar Wilde

"Discovery comes as a result of positive discontent, a constructive dissatisfaction. In fact, one might quite truthfully say that there is no discovery when one is content." — Myron Allen

"Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." — Jordan Peterson

"Discontent is the first necessity of progress." — Thomas A. Edison

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-origin-words/202005/which-human-ancestor-invented-words
  2. Farmer, R. T. (2010). The Spirit Is The Difference: The Cintas Corporate Culture. (4th edition) Cintas Corporation.

Shawn M. Galloway

Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy ProAct Safety. He is a trusted advisor, professional keynote speaker, and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership, and behavior-based safety. He is a monthly columnist for several magazines and one of the most prolific contributors in the industry, having also authored over 700 podcasts, 200 articles, and 100 videos. Shawn has received awards and recognition for his significant contributions from the American Society of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council's Top 40 Rising Stars and Top Ten Speakers, EHS Today Magazine's 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS, ISHN Magazine's POWER 101 - Leaders of the EHS World and their newest list: 50 Leaders for Today and Tomorrow, Pro-Sapien's list of The Top 11 Health and Safety Influencers and is an Avetta Distinguished Fellow.

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