Must Pain Be Used to Motivate Gain?

I recently lurked during a conference workshop discussion about the need for people to experience enough pain before they would engage in significant change or innovate their efforts. The general consensus was that without enough pain, few were going to do anything.

Does that ring true with your experiences?

It makes sense at the most simplistic level: if I feel things are going along fine what incentive would I have for making a change that could backfire, produce unintended results, etc.? It’s the old “better to be safe than sorry” mindset.

The “pain before gain” approach suggests that systems and people need to be sufficiently disturbed to break them out of their patterns or complacency and to engage in innovation and change. Such an approach then begs for incidents or individuals that will inflict sufficient pain to motivate a change in people’s behavior.

The bottom line: it can causes leaders to become agents of pain or storytellers who stretch the true nature of a situation enough so people view it as a possible threat that must be avoided. Hmm … where might we have seen that strategy used?

These two downsides of the “pain before gain” mindset become rather significant over time. If you believe people need to feel the pain in order to change, you spend your days going around inflicting pain upon your colleagues. They, in turn, begin to associate you with little more than pain and misery and often seek to avoid you at all costs and/or shut off the information pipeline to you that might cause you to act in a manner resulting in even more pain for them. You go from “disturbing the system” to just being downright disturbing.

Using negative visions or threats to inspire fear in colleagues—while often wildly successful—also loses its effectiveness over time. As Peter Senge and his colleagues wrote about in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, negative visions only motivate behavior change so long as people see the threat as real and imminent. The example I often use for this phenomenon is driving the speed limit. Even the fastest drivers usually slow down and toe the line when a squad car is sitting at the side of the road in plain sight. But once they pass the police (and the threat is no longer imminent and real) they go right back to driving as fast as they want.

I don’t know about you but I don’t want my leadership to be commonly associated with pain or the police. I also don’t want my leadership to be associated with using the earliest stages of moral development (avoid pain) as a way to get people to change for the better. Doing either certainly doesn’t match the definition of leadership Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner offered in The Leadership Challenge: Leadership is the art of inspiring others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.”
The pain before gain mindset has little to do with inspiration or aspiration. Yes, it is effective, but I believe it should be used sparingly, in moderation, and as a last resort whenever possible.

A more challenging (perhaps) approach is to offer a compelling picture of the potential benefits of a desired change, to engage those most affected by your vision in discussion about what it means for them and how they might refine it, and to pick some low hanging fruit that get things moving toward the ultimate desired ends. Institutionalizing ongoing improvement and innovation becomes the cultural norm in the organization—“the way we do things around here”—instead of something most frequently done when the pain threshold has been crossed.

Leadership should not default to inflicting pain as a means to stimulate action. Leadership should always include truth-telling and transparency about the very real challenges and the potential consequences individuals and organizations might face if certain actions aren’t considered. Leadership should be about building organizational cultures in which individuals and groups regularly “disturb themselves” in an effort to produce better results and more innovative programs and services.

We do ourselves, our organizations, and others in general a disservice when we too quickly promulgate some perceived conventional wisdom about what it takes to make things happen in organizations. Gain can and does come without pain. We need to trumpet that reality more regularly.