Pain is very useful

By Rusty Bozman

Some years ago, I turned to a good friend for a supportive ear when I was going through a low point in my personal life. As usual, he was generous with his time, but at the very end of our conversation he gave me something much greater than what I originally asked for: a new perspective.

Trained as a physician, he explained that while we don’t like it very much, pain is incredibly useful. Physical pain is the body’s way of signaling to us that something is wrong and needs our attention.

I often think about this concept now when I work with clients or businesses experiencing pain. Regardless of the particular type of pain or its source, some universal truths apply to both business and personal situations.

Truth 1: Pain ultimately forces us to get honest. As much as I try to deny it, my body hurts more now following exercise than it did 10 years ago. I can try to ignore it, but the gray in my hair and the creaks in my knees betray my denials.

The same holds true in business. Pain worsens over time if it is ignored.

I worked with such a client in Tennessee for more than a year in an attempt to correct a failing business model. The client had benefited from several lucrative contracts with the Department of Energy, working in the nuclear industry. Their revenues and costs grew considerably during that time.

But by the time I began working with them, many of the contracts had either ended, been rebid to other organizations or were far less profitable as a result of a changing governmental landscape. So, we set to work right away to identify the truth of the organization’s situation and discovered some stark realities, which needed immediate action if the company was to survive.

My consulting partner and I provided several viable options to streamline unnecessary overhead in order to develop new recurring lines of revenue. Surprisingly however, the company’s owner refused to adopt the recommendations because they suffered from denial over the dramatic losses of the prior revenue levels and contracts, and wouldn’t acknowledge the shortening duration and reduction of existing revenue.

Time ticked by and little changed. To the contrary –- the owner preferred to pursue unrealistic and costly options which might restore the company to its former glory rather than adjust costs to fit revenues now.

The organization was on the clock to generate miracles and ultimately was forced to make the cuts originally recommended, but only after the pain became too great to ignore. It was too late.

Truth 2: Pain requires immediate attention…and action. Another client of mine suffered from declining revenues in the face of new competition in his market. When we analyzed the situation, it became clear that one of his primary sales managers was not effective in producing adequate levels of leads or new contracts.

We conducted individual assessments with each member of the sales team, and this particular individual scored significantly lower in sales aptitude and competitive drive than his peers. Combined with his poor sales outcomes I recommended a change in this position–either moving him to another role or replacing him completely. The client agreed.

However, another six months melted away before anything was discussed again and revenues continued to fall. The individual in question was a great person and everyone liked him very much; even clients. The problem was no one was buying anything from him because he never asked for the sale.

Another client had the exact opposite problem. This client employed an incredible IT manager who was able to do almost anything technically.

He was so competent that he managed all IT projects for the organization personally. Yet he became ineffective at managing so many projects and refused to delegate any to other capable staff in the department.

Over time, deadlines slipped, internal customers became frustrated and the head of IT was forced to make a change. It was difficult for her to balance the desire to have such a “whiz kid” with the need to produce quality and timely solutions for the organization. In the end, she made the difficult, but correct decision, but only after the pain was too great to bear.

Truth 3: Pain is not necessary for change. My experience has shown me the duality in this great truth. On one hand, humans are capable of learning from the mistakes of others and avoiding pain altogether if we are willing and open to adopting these lessons. On the other hand, my experience has also shown me that most people are not motivated to learn without being prompted by pain.

In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins suggests that the best leaders (Level 5 Leaders) are those who possess several key characteristics, one of which is that they “confront the brutal facts.” Collins goes on to suggest that confronting brutal facts contains three primary components:
1. Creating a climate where the truth is heard: As leaders in our organizations, one of the greatest gifts we can provide to all who work with us is to create a climate where the truth is heard. We do this by investigating problems or failures without assigning blame, asking lots of questions to support debate around the brutal facts, and resisting the urge to finesse or intimidate consenting views.

2. Getting the data to learn the truth: Good leaders also respect instincts that “something is wrong,” but require evidence to support these claims. This necessitates a command of sound business analytics and measurements to assess internal weaknesses, external threats, comparative statistics to past performance and projected market and business trends. In short, it demands rigorous and data-driven measurements of our business.

3. Embrace the Stockdale Paradox. In Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Admiral James Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in a Vietnamese POW camp.
Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox. So, as Stockdale said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”


rustyRusty Bozman is the founder of Workplace Synergistics, Inc., a human resources consulting firm based in St. Augustine, FL.  Prior to founding Workplace Synergistics in 2011, Rusty served as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Development for The St. Joe Company for eleven years.  In his earlier career, he held top HR positions for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, Computer Associates International, and a startup contractor for the Department of Defense.  Rusty is a Certified Compensation Professional and holds a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Florida, and a M.S. in Industrial / Organizational Psychology from the University of Baltimore, MD.

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