The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
NEW YORK (
) -- Following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that ended the long-term dictatorships in each country, protesters in other Arab countries including Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iran and Sudan followed suit. The rapidity with which the sparks of unrest in one country have ignited fires of freedom in others reminds us all how quickly dissatisfaction can infect a group -- and spread like wildfire.
Of course, the spread of democracy in the Middle East is a good thing: the region stands to benefit greatly as does the world. The dissidents' opposition is justified and the reforms sought are long overdue.
But often in the corporate world, dissent among employees can be groundless or even petty. Small businesses in particular are vulnerable, for as the degree of comfort with one's superiors increases, the temperament to hold one's tongue decreases. The rumbles of a few quickly give rise to the clamor of the masses and the resulting frustration gains dangerous momentum.
Even if the grievances are unwarranted and seemingly insignificant, business owners must stop the discord from snowballing and take clear, decisive steps to re-establish mutual respect and trust in the company.
1. Acknowledge the source of dissatisfaction, regardless of personal opinion on the matter. The worst thing an employer can do is pretend the problem does not exist or treat it as a "ridiculous gripe" and deny it credence. By listening to employees' discontent and validating their feelings about it, business owners not only show employees they are on their side but also take the first steps toward stopping the unrest from spreading further.
2. Micromanage -- and be a control freak. While most business owners are loath to be called a micromanager or a control freak (let alone both), now is the time to meet with employees, dig into their operations and separate the ringleaders from their cohorts. Many will revel in the attention from their boss and will naturally come to see his/her passion for the business, thus taking care of any cynical feelings previously held. By monitoring, investigating and scrutinizing, business owners can see where the problems lie and nip any new frustration in the bud. For those that do not come around -- usually the ringleaders who started it all -- see point number five.
3. Consider conveying the "big picture" to employees. Bosses do not owe their employees an explanation, but at times, elaborating on company actions can help alleviate ill-founded worries of layoffs, reassignments, etc. Perception is reality, so if employees fear actions by management will directly and adversely impact their reality, then they will protest. Intervening sooner rather than later is more likely to put a halt to the detrimental rumors and ensure your employees continue working for the company goals.
4. Use carrots and sticks when necessary. When the dust settles from internal uprisings, employees usually need some encouragement to amp up performance and see the company to the next level. Though some believe fear to be the best motivator, many are more inspired by a fresh, crunchy carrot. If step two above is completed successfully, a good boss will know whether to wield a carrot or a stick when approaching each employee. Knowing what prompts each employee to do his/her best work helps maintain productive -- and satisfied -- employees.
5. Dismiss employees who refuse to toe the company line. If the above steps have been taken and an employee continues to display divisive behavior, then termination of employment is the only option. Even if this employee performs excellent work, an employee who refuses to cooperate is a dangerous liability. Though firing a dissenting employee usually sends a powerful message of compliance to the rest of the company, this should not be the reason an employee is dismissed. Using someone as a "sacrificial lamb" of sorts is mean-spirited; improving the collective morale is wise.
While corporations are not pure democracies, they are not pure dictatorships either. Most employers encourage feedback from their employees as the change in perspective can be enlightening. But on the other hand, too much familiarity -- as can occur in small businesses -- can inadvertently breed disrespect.
Establishing a system for broaching concerns and complaints both helps prevent the rumor mill from becoming the dominant voice in the company and affirms the business owner's leadership. If employees believe they have safe channels through which to voice their grievances, venting at the water cooler is less likely to turn into a mini-uprising.