This is the second in a 3-part series about Pain and Decision-Making.
Although pain is usually viewed as harmful (“bad pain”), it can also help us (“good pain”). Let’s examine the useful kind.
Benefits of Good Pain
Some agony is actually good. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to recognize what’s going wrong. And as a result, we might suffer for even longer, lose even more, or fail to recognize a worsening condition.
As much as we want to avoid it, sometimes pain is useful.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Pain alerts us to danger.
Get too close to a fire, and your body’s pain receptors will signal that it’s unsafe. One way to capitalize this is by setting up parameter thresholds that can alert you to potential problems before they get worse.
2. Pain serves as an incentive to reach goals.
Let’s face it: most of us are wimps. We avoid situations that feel uncomfortable and that don’t give us an obvious ROI (Return on Investment). But despite this mental barrier, the best way to reach big goals is to focus on the benefits we will enjoy once we reach them. Pain can actually serve as a motivator to overcome barriers standing in our way.
One simple way to do this is to list 100 compelling reasons to achieve your goal. (By the time you get to #51 or #52, the answers start to get very interesting.)
3. Pain reminds us of progress.
Worthwhile goals require effort. Although it’s unpleasant, any pain we experience on the way to achieving our goals is temporary. I find it helpful to review progress using a tool like the Post-Mortem Evaluation.
4. Pain allows us to grow.
I really enjoy lifting weights. After finishing an especially brutal workout, I expect Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), which is a side effect of micro-tears in the muscle tissue. The tearing-down process actually allows muscles to grow and strengthen.
In the same way, as a leader it is important that you push past boundaries and raise the bar even higher. I call this “Moving the Needle.” We want to see progress, and sometimes a bit of pain is necessary to make it happen.
5. Pain acts as a feedback loop.
We constantly use mental shortcuts to sift through the things that went well in the past, and the things to avoid. Consider Pavlov’s famous conditioning experiments. That is why we are drawn to routines: because we know from past experiences that we can expect a favorable result.
It works in reverse, too. We tend to avoid behaviors that resulted in bad outcomes. As the saying goes, “Once bitten, twice shy.”
This feedback process is even more effective if you create a mechanism to collect and evaluate input using Healthy Feedback Loops.
What’s In a Feedback Loop?
I am a visual learner. So when I think about why a process works well, it’s helpful to see it in a visual diagram. The image below demonstrates the 5 components that should be present in your communication process:
- Empathetic Leaders. The leadership team should feel experience the pain of those they lead (especially Foundational Staff).
- Non-Retaliatory Culture. Even if the feedback isn’t pleasant, intimidation is not the answer.
- Structured Feedback Mechanism. Take a look at how you are collecting the feedback, and who is monitoring it.
- Analytic Framework. All data should be analyzed and evaluated, both quantitatively (numeric) and qualitatively (thoughts and experiences).
- Visible Follow-Through. Complete the loop by implementing changes, communicating your decisions to everyone involved, and monitoring the new process.
Traditional strategic planning tends to overlook the importance of feedback loops. But I believe that when we are open to hearing others’ opinions (especially if they are unpleasant), we are better prepared to avoid loss and discover new opportunities.
Downsides of Harmful Pain
There are, of course, other types of pain that do NOT serve us well. This type is neither useful nor helpful. Instead of allowing us to grow, it destroys.
- limits our progress by blocking the path to success
- keeps us from recognizing the value we provide to others
- has no identifiable source
- continues to cause harm even after the danger has passed
Often, business owners I speak to are frustrated by challenges with no identifiable cause. They find it really difficult to see blind spots in their strategic planning process. The most common root causes of inefficient processes and decreased revenue stem from the business owner herself of himself.
And most of those problems are due to unacknowledged needs, fears, or expectations.
The key is to:
- identify the activities that move the needle toward effective growth, and
- reduce the potential for harm.
When Pain Signals are Inaccurate
Pain — whether physical, emotional, or mental — serves a purpose. It sends a signal of impending danger, allowing us to course-correct.
Usually these signals work well, but they can also lull us into a false sense of security (when we ignore obvious problems), or exaggerate the danger (when our hesitation results in missed opportunities).
Risk intelligence is all about having the right amount of certainty. …According to Aristotle, virtue lies halfway between a dangerous excess and an equally problematic deficiency.
Just as courage is equidistant from the opposite extremes of recklessness and cowardice, risk intelligence is a golden mean lying halfway between overconfidence and underconfidence.
(©2012 Free Press, p. 24)
A false sense of security is usually caused by overconfidence: Unjustifiable assurance that one’s beliefs and actions are completely correct.
Exaggerating the danger is typically due to underconfidence: Excessive uncertainty and hesitation about one’s beliefs or actions.
Why Manage Risk?
If you’ve ever experienced idiopathic pain (for which there is no obvious cause), you know how frustrating it is to be taken seriously. Effective risk managers are able to find the sources of pain, and identify all responsible root causes.
Some of us see the world in shades of uncertainty. We are constantly on the lookout for indicators that something could go wrong. By erring on the side of caution and analysis, we tend to “sound the alarm” in an effort to protect the organization from harm. But constant alarms can create alert fatigue, which is common in the healthcare IT world.
I believe that many business owners suffer from Risk Alert Fatigue, which is:
Over-exposure to numerous, frequent, and inconsequential warnings to low-probability and low-severity threats that results in:
- desensitization to high-risk circumstances,
- a decreased interest in responding to all threats regardless of severity, and
- an increase in the potential for significant harm.
As a leader, you are faced with a constant flow of problems to solve. Your job to evaluate and manage the pain points.
So how can you tell which painful problems to address first?
I recommend using a decision-making like this:
I once worked for a company where the leaders got so tired of hearing the staff’s problems that they banned all negative feedback. They called it a “No-Gossip Policy,” but in reality it was a desperate attempt to squelch bad news and whistleblowers. As you can imagine, this policy did nothing to eliminate the problems; things only got worse.
I believe the biggest challenge to leaders today is their ability to see and measure potential problems before they happen.
The ability to perceive your organization’s vulnerabilities ahead of time is called strategic risk intelligence. In order to increase this type of intelligence, you have to be able to correctly identify which problems are causing the most harm.
How to Identify and Control Pain
So we have identified the benefits of pain and components of a healthy feedback loop, the downsides of pain and dangers of under- and over-estimating risk.
Now let’s talk about how you can identify where the pain is coming from.
In medicine, pain is viewed as a signal. The pain itself is not the main issue; it is an indicator of root causes. Practitioners are skilled at identifying all possible causes (Differential Diagnosis), then isolating the primary issue to be treated and managed (Primary Diagnosis).
I find it helpful to use a structured diagnostic process (like the one below) to define the situation, determine a diagnosis, and develop a plan of action.
When we manage risk, our goal is to identify and control the potential for harm. Risk managers do everything possible to foresee what could go wrong, measure the degree of severity and probability of it occurring, and then recommend actions to manage vulnerabilities.
Once we identify the source of the pain or frustration, we can decide how to manage it for the long-term.
How do we do that? I like to use a Risk Matrix to clarify the options.
- for Low severity and high likelihood: Share (acquire insurance)
- for Low severity and low likelihood: Accept (allow the vulnerability to continue)
- for High severity and low likelihood: Control (transfer risk to another entity)
- for High severity and high likelihood: Mitigate (reduce the number of factors)
So in summary:
- Pain can be helpful when it alerts us to danger, reminds us of progress, and allows us to grow.
- Unhealthy pain is harmful because it limits our progress and keeps us from recognizing value.
- To overcome barriers, we must become aware of our blind spots and recognize decisions that are reckless (from overconfidence) or hesitant (from underconfidence).
- Risk alert fatigue can set in if we feel overwhelmed, so a Risk Matrix is a great tool to provide clarity.
While owning a business is no walk in the park, it doesn’t have to make you suffer. Try using the tools above to identify where your struggles are originating, and to zoom out and see the situation from an objective point of view.
To find out what happens when organizations ignore pain, check out Part 3.
Need help evaluating whether your organization is at risk? Read more about our services here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.