I was injured recently. It was minor, and I’ll spare you the details, but it was nonetheless painful and restricted my movement. So off I went to physical therapy, which I assumed would involve stretching, a series of exercises and a therapist who would remind me of physical activities I could no longer do. I’d essentially be going to the gym and getting some lectures.
I was half right.
Oh yes, there was definitely stretching and exercise, but I also learned a lot about pain and the many emotions and thought patterns that affect it. I was told that when the brain senses pain, it works to limit the movements that exacerbate the feeling and enlists secondary muscles to provide alternatives that can, paradoxically, cause more pain. Pain induces fear and a sharpened determination to avoid risky behaviors, resulting in distraction, poor concentration and ineffective problem-solving.
In the consulting world, we are used to handling our clients’ pain. We just have a different name for it: crisis. How organizations react in crisis can improve or exacerbate the severity of their situation, so how we help them is very important.
Here’s an example we’ve seen a dozen times over the years: An unwise decision is made that results in negative press and company losses. The organization shifts focus to resolving the problem and preventing it from happening again, usually with a lot of pie charts and slide decks. But in crisis, pie charts and slide decks can mean very little. In crisis, other parts of a company are affected. Curtailing loss and negative publicity becomes paramount. Decisions are often wildly reactive and potentially profitable projects are not pursued out of a newfound fear of risk. When this happens, the company’s growth curve flattens.
Doctors tend to tell you that pain is a vital sense that helps us know to avoid certain behaviors, but pain is not a perfect signal. Part of my physical therapy – the part I had not anticipated – involved learning to accept a certain level of pain. During my sessions, any time I said, “I guess I shouldn’t do _______,” the typical and at first surprising response was to go ahead and do it anyway. See if the pain was still there the next day. If so, cut back on the behavior, but you don’t have to eliminate it entirely.
You can’t let pain or the risk of pain dictate your actions – in life or in business. If you find yourself hesitating, ask whether it’s because you don’t have enough information to feel comfortable making a decision or because the decision itself is uncomfortable. Some decisions are uncomfortable. Some decisions carry greater risk than others. That’s just reality. Managing risk is the toughest job leaders face, but the very best take comfort in knowing that sometimes even the right move may hurt.