The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

—P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

He had been one of MI6’s top agents, a specialist in cybercrime. Until he went rogue and M handed him over to the Chinese in a prisoner swap. Now he’s holed up on an abandoned island full of supercomputers, and is using the skills the British government taught him to destroy M and overthrow the organization he once loved. Raoul Silva, villain of the Bond film Skyfall, is an archetypal expression of a very modern bogeyman: the disgruntled former employee.

Gruntles are the little snorts that pigs make while flicking flies from their snout. In the wild, boars gruntle to warn rivals to stay away. Amid the comforts of the farm, however, pigs don’t gruntle out of threat so much as from habitual dissatisfaction, and it’s this that gives the idea that gruntling is rather petty and pointless. Humans gruntle in their sties too, whining about the quality of the coffee, grumbling and griping on the commute home.

So talk of employees being “disgruntled” (it’s one of those rare words where the “dis” exaggerates rather than negates, like “distend”) might make us wonder. Disgruntled insiders, stealing intellectual property and spreading misinformation, are now thought to be a major threat to corporate life. But calling them “disgruntled”? It might suggest they could only ever be motivated by their own paltry emotions—leaving the corporate practices that alienated them in the first place in the clear.

In the early twentieth century ANXIETY, rather than disgruntlement, was considered the primary emotional challenge for corporations. Believing anxious feelings to stem from insecurity, industrial psychologists encouraged organizations to foster a sense of belonging. At IBM in the 1930s, for instance, employees were all expected to join in with the company song: “Right here and now we thankfully / Pledge sincerest loyalty / To the corporation that’s the best of all…”

But do we really want to belong to our workplaces anymore? As the Italian Marxist philosopher Paolo Virno has argued, what used to be signs of employee disaffection are now professional ideals. In our dynamic, mobile economy, it’s flexibility that is most prized. Insecurity about one’s job, fear of being reshuffled, or of missing out on promotion have been translated by corporate HR departments into the values of “flexibility, adaptability and a readiness to reconfigure oneself.” Yet, as online systems become more open to tampering and information more portable, employers have also become more nervous than ever about the loyalty and trustworthiness of their employees. The rise in disgruntlement may be an outgrowth of this conflicted work culture, with its demand that employees be both emotionally invested and dispensable.

Corporations have begun to use cybersecurity consultants to help guard intellectual property against “malicious insiders.” Psychological profiles of those who might pose a risk have been drawn up: they usually work in technical positions such as engineering or IT; “often feel entitled to” the data; and their decision is frequently prompted by a “perceived professional set-back or unmet expectations.”

Perhaps giving employees greater ownership over their work, rather than less, is the solution to disgruntlement. But in the meantime, continued monitoring of personnel is advised, including better screening to prevent hiring what cybersecurity consultants term “a problem employee.” We should expect worries about the threat of disgruntlement to rise over the coming decades—and further debate about how to detect those who pose a risk. But for the time being, one of the clearest steers comes from a US government memo. It advises security agencies to monitor “despondence and grumpiness as a means to gauge waning trustworthiness.”

So if you’re one of life’s gruntlers, consider yourself warned.

For more on workplace emotions see: CHEERFULNESS; VULNERABILITY.