Last week I got a Tdap booster vaccination. My arm is still a bit sore. I knew it was going to hurt, because the nurse who gave me the vaccination warned me, “The needle will hurt a bit, and the injection site will be sore for a few days.” I took the shot anyway, because I knew it was good for me.

But in other areas of my life, I confuse pain and harm. And I find other leaders too often make this same mistake.

Pain is physical or emotional discomfort, while harm is injury or damage.

Imagine a team that has an individual who isn’t performing, and that the poor performance is due to a lack of fit, a lack of skill, or a lack of motivation. There are different solutions for each of these root causes, but leaving the individual in place and doing nothing is a losing proposition. To quote Colin Powell, “Hope is not a strategy.” Of course the conversations that are required to address such situations are hard– they’ll be somewhere between mildly uncomfortable and nearly intolerable. But just because they hurt doesn’t mean they harm. Discussing the poor performance with him, finding him a new role, or eventually exiting him from the organization are all highly beneficial activities. These actions can hurt, but they help.

Of course too much pain, in and of itself, can be damaging. Torture can cause psychological wounds. Posttraumatic stress is real. “Emotional scarring” isn’t just psychobabble. But I’ve found most humans are far stronger than we give them credit for.

Too often we react to pain or suffering in our lives like a two-year-old, instead of like an adult. The toddler doesn’t understand the value of the event (benefit minus cost), so he complains loudly and bitterly. But as adults, we have choices.


Choosing Pain

When we consciously choose a painful path, the pain is often more tolerable. Seventeen years ago, my wife Kim delivered our first baby– Serae. Kim had heard about how painful it was to give birth, so she got an epidural and a half-dose of a narcotic to ease the pain. With our second child– Kael– Kim again received an epidural. With our third baby, Kim chose a different route. She decided to have our third child naturally, without any pain medication. Zeff Luther Neidigh arrived after several hours of intense laboring. Kim was able to relax through even the monster contractions, taking the pain and moving forward. She described the challenges of labor as “productive pain,” and it accomplished something magnificent.

It takes a measure of discipline to fight through productive pain to get to the victory, or the production, or the growth. When we think of all pain as bad, we tend either to give up when things start hurting, or to avoid things we think will hurt.

Painful experiences can create new insights, growth, and resilience. Like many philosophers over the ages, I believe suffering can be a great teacher. “Something isn’t right here. Pay attention. You’re too attached.”

Over the past few months, my friend Daniel Fuller has given me some wise counsel. He has helped me see (in a kind way) some of the less productive aspects of my personality and behavior. I have come to the conclusion that I have unintentionally run roughshod over many people in my life. Reaching this insight and thinking through my past (and considering what it means for my future) are all painful. I feel humbled and embarrassed. It’s hard to “sit in this” and not try to run away. And yet I have no doubt that it is good and healthy and productive for me to gain this new knowledge and perspective.


When Harm Doesn’t Hurt

Sometimes things that don’t hurt can still cause harm. Our comfort and complacency can cause us to get weaker and less resilient. It isn’t painful for me to sit on the couch, binge on Breaking Bad, and eat a six-pack of Reese’s Big Cups washed down with some whole milk. In fact, it can be quite pleasurable and satisfying. But it isn’t doing my cardiovascular system any favors. And “medicating” myself by escaping into a TV drama (and escaping into food) may prevent me from processing life’s challenges in a healthy way.


Embrace the Suck*

At times, we don’t have the luxury of choosing to avoid pain or pursue it. Sometimes it just finds us. In those times, as the U.S. Marine Corps taught me, you can at least embrace the suck. The situation isn’t pleasant, and you’re not going to enjoy it, but you have to get though it, and you can get through it stronger than when you started. Not surprisingly, it’s easier to get through it when multiple people are going through it together, unified in their embrace of the suck.

Embracing the suck can help us get better at practicing painful but beneficial behaviors. As we practice, we may find they get less painful over time, or that our tolerance for the pain increases. We can train ourselves to run faster without gasping for air, to have courageous conversations without panicking, to be our authentic selves at work without feeling completely vulnerable and exposed, to wade into uncertainty and take risks without grabbing onto the first life preserver that floats by, or to sit in painful emotions and process them productively without running away or numbing ourselves.

*Apologies to my grandma Mimi (RIP), who was always scandalized by my use of the word ‘suck.’


Leading Through Pain

I’ve never seen an important leadership role that allows the leader to consistently “stay the course” without making changes. Every leader is in the business of revolution or evolution or both. When we invite and inspire change, those affected may feel loss, anxiety, frustration, confusion, or anger. Taking action that causes others to feel pain is part of being a leader.

Of course, intentionally inflicting pain without compensatory benefit isn’t good leadership; it’s cruelty. And inflicting pain without acknowledging it is like the nurse who surprises you with a needle stick or calls you a baby for wincing—you’ll never trust her again.

We can lead well by kindly pointing out where others are complacent, to help them wake up. We can help each other choose to walk through pain, when the benefits outweigh the costs. We can point out the difference between pain and harm, and encourage others to persist through productive pain. And the most important thing we can do as leaders is walk alongside others in their pain, with grace, empathy, and hope for the growth to come.

21 Comments

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  1. Great and insightful article, Chip. Thank you.

  2. Chip,

    Excellent! Very insightful and nicely worded. I will pass it on to my daughter.

    Thanks, Rochelle Woods

  3. Nice post, Chip. This is something I have been chewing on myself lately. The embrace the suck mantra has been dear to me as I have started crossfit. It’s really tough for a 51 year old guy but the suck leads to results. No way around it—-just through it. I’ve also found this to be true as it relates to spiritual disciplines. Thanks for reminding me this morning.

  4. Great stuff, as always, Chip. And, especially helpful for me as I’m working with a handful of companies that are feeling the change-management pain of leaving annual performance reviews. Using your example, the “pain” is the change-management but the “injury” was from ineffective talent management.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Funny. Pain is required in those cases to escape further injury. Doing the hard work to survive and eventually to thrive.

  5. Matthew Cambridge

    Great article, this is full of wisdom!

  6. Excellent points you make in this writing. As you are aware, 2016 was a painful year for me in that I had to make a leadership change, but as you said in your writing, the results have been extraordinarily beneficial to me and to our company.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      I know that was tough, but I think you’ve emerged stronger as a leader, and as a team. Letting someone go is always painful.

  7. Chip, excellent thoughts. Thank you! As I read your article, the mantra, “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” came to mind. Since you didn’t mention it, I was glad to see “embrace the suck” instead.

    One thing that has kept me sane in many of life’s challenges and the resulting pain and growth, is that nothing lasts forever. In the middle of a difficult situation at work, I have the evening and its respite to look forward to for regrouping; or I have the end of the project and product delivery to look forward to, etc. Having the concept of an ‘ending’ in my mind boosts me mentally to ’embrace the suck’ and persevere through for the rewards. At the same time, having an ‘ending’ concept in mind doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t put my all into whatever I’m doing.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Thanks, Steve. That strikes me as great advice. Do you ever find yourself in a season that seems unending, and yet you still feel called to stay there? In those (hopefully more rare) cases, I think leaning on the calling can be helpful, too.

  8. Chip,
    Thank you for referencing our conversations that have been equally beneficial for me! Your wise counsel has caused me to not go to my default personality flaw of avoiding pain and conflict, but embracing it as a teacher and guide. Timely word for me and for the wider leadership community.

    One resource that has been helpful for me in distinguishing between pain and harm is The Life Model’s delineation of the two types of trauma, A & B – http://www.lifemodel.org/topic.php?rn=7. In short, type B traumas are what we usually think about – abuse, war, etc. However, type A can be just as harmful, which includes insecure bonds, lack of joy, abandonment. It’s more of the absence of foundational human needs. Both of these lists are places of harm, but my experience is that we generally think of the type A’s as places of pain. What I conclude from this along with your helpful reflections is leaders avoiding the necessary yet painful conversations with their people can lead to stifling joy and human connection in the workplace, and cause trauma or harm to take root.

    Again, convicting and timely word, Chip. Much gratitude!
    Daniel

  9. Chip,
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Our company recently went through enormous change which included downsizing over 1000 people and relocating our headquarters. It was painful to see friends leave the organization and the impact to our community. Now that the dust has settled I. An see that it was necessary to experience that pain to make us stronger. Much like exercise, surgeries, or valleys in our spiritual journey – the short-term pain ultimately builds us up.

    I will steal your “embrace the suck” – great idea.

    Craig

  10. I love the application to me both personally and professionally as too often I have stayed in the comfortable situation rather than embracing the pain. I wish we could grab a coffee and discuss more but maybe we can virtually. I hope you and the family are well and thanks for the inspiration to keep pressing in.