My pain story started when I took a huge Labrador for a walk. Actually, it was more like the Labrador took me for a walk—pulling and running ahead of me until she suddenly decided to change direction and force me into an argument with the laws of physics. The episode resulted in an instant crack in my lower back—not to mention a permanent dislike of the canine species.

Rather than take it easy on my now tender back, I continued as if nothing were wrong. I lifted heavy objects, moved furniture by myself, and refused my wife's offer of help in wrestling a filing cabinet into our new home. But the filing cabinet left me lying on the floor awaiting an ambulance ride to the hospital with an angry wife standing over me.

But today I am a changed man.

I listen to my wife more, and I have new respect for my spine. And yes, a couple of surgeries and a wife who said "Enough is enough!" have much to do with my changed attitude. Despite being angry with me for being stupid, she massaged my lower back regularly and even walked on me in an attempt to alleviate the pain. In my quest for a pain-free back, I spent thousands of dollars, visited all imaginable medical practitioners, purchased traction devices, and even invested in a very expensive massage chair.

The pain persisted.

So, what made the difference? My wife. She insisted I go and see a specialist so we can "get to the bottom of it." Before he agreed to see me, the specialist wanted an MRI scan of my lower back in order to suggest the next course of action. Suddenly all was clear. We could see exactly what caused my pain: two discs that were pressing my sciatic nerve. No x-ray could show this, only the MRI had the capability of showing soft tissue.

So I had an operation.

Today I am mostly pain free and able to move. I can almost contemplate taking another dog for a walk, this time a poodle.

So, what do tugging dogs, filing cabinets, and angry wives have to do with leadership? Organizational pain.

Pain? What Pain?

As organizations age and grow there is a tendency to make mistakes. Because of the mistakes made, every organization has issues to deal with. Those issues can be equated with Organizational Pain (OP). I suggest there are two fundamental errors organizations make as they confront issues causing pain: ignoring the pain and misdiagnosing it.

It is not uncommon for a growing organization to take its staff (both paid and unpaid) for granted. Objectives and profits become so important that workers are not listened to.

If organizations are unable to acknowledge their OP, the result will be a steady exodus of key people (if they have an option to leave), or will be manifested in a workforce that is detached, disillusioned, and does not perform to the best of their abilities. Ignoring the pain will not make the pain go away. Instead, it will spread.

This strategy of ignorance is particularly common in Christian ministries. The unspoken philosophy is "We are Christians; we are not supposed to have any pain in our organization."

The situation becomes more acute when the workers are blamed for the situation. From the management side, workers may be reminded that "they are not working for money but for the Lord," so they should also ignore the pain that is felt and discussed in offices and corridors.

It is important to note that rarely do workers criticize because they like criticizing. OP is expressed because it is either real or perceived. In either case top leaders ought to listen and respond, not to ignore or deflect responsibility.

I know how I felt when I was told by well-meaning individuals that my lower-back pain was all "in my head." "Get on with your life. Don't be so preoccupied with your pain," they said. I grew disillusioned with the medical profession. Soon I wondered whether I was imagining things.

Needless to say, no one wants to feel used or insane. Yet, some workers feel exactly that way, even in Christian organizations. Either the administration portrays itself as all-knowing so that the workers start doubting their own sanity, or they feel used for the benefit of the organization (and by extension for the benefit of those who lead).

Not surprisingly, disillusionment is the natural outcome of such feelings.

Don't Miss These Signs

The second big mistake is not discovering the actual cause of OP. Misdiagnosing will inevitably lead the organization to spend resources (time, human, and financial) in the wrong areas while leaving the root problem untouched.

I personally know how costly misdiagnosis can be. I purchased medications, visited expensive clinics, and invested in costly equipment with no improvement to my condition. What's worse, I could have caused more damage by acting on ill-founded advice.

So it is with the church.

It is attractive to consider solutions to OP that are efficient, but ultimately not effective. As a rule, solutions that are not the result of careful observation and unbiased listening will not lead to significant improvements.

In Leadership When the Heat's On (McGraw-Hill, 2002), Danny Cox and John Hoover identify ten warning signs indicating "pain" in any organization. These include uncooperative attitudes, lack of enthusiasm, absence of commitment, fault-finding, increasing complaints, and low morale as a rallying point. Such signs are only the surface symptoms, and if attempts are made only to treat the symptoms, the underlying issues will remain.

Elaborating on the last sign, Cox and Hoover say, "When your people make no attempt to conceal their negative feelings, you can bet there is something wrong and whatever it is poses a real threat to your organization's long-term morale. No manager worth his or her salt would miss an indicator as obvious as consensus discontent in the ranks."

What could be the causes of such symptoms? It could be unclear goals and expectations, poor communication, inadequate organizational structure, or lack of consistent and fair performance appraisal, to name a few.

Both roads (ignoring the pain or misdiagnosing its source) will lead to more instability and further alienation between the leaders and workers.

What Good Practitioners Do

So, where do we start in addressing organizational pain? My wife may have some advice.

1. Understand and support. In case my wife ever reads this article, let me say that she has been grossly misrepresented as being an "angry wife." Yes, she was angry with me at times, but at no time did she withdraw her support and love. She understood my pain. For years she sacrificed in order for me to find a solution.

I suggest that any leader who is prepared to do the same will discover a real solution for OP.

2. Show grace and determination in equal proportions. Be determined to "get to the bottom of it," but with grace. The worker must perceive that he is valuable and important. Sometimes necessary change may be painful, but if it is implemented with grace, chances are the change will succeed and the team members will stay with you.

3. Know when enough is enough. The crucial step is when the leader finally says "enough" to the pain, and pledges to seek solutions. If that means being told unpleasant things, if it means postponing some of the programs, so be it.

4. Accept pain, both perceived and real, as worthy of attention. Do not dismiss perceived pain as unimportant. Even if criticism is not founded on reality and is further spread by rumors and gossip, it still causes real pain, and therefore warrants the leader's full attention.

5. Be personal. When the leader opens his heart and becomes vulnerable, there is hope of understanding the real causes of pain. This opening up also builds trust and destroys some of the myths and ill-founded perceptions about the organization and its leaders.

6. Replace programs with processes. Administrators are experts in devising programs and strategies, but solutions are rarely in programs. Process is what matters. Of course, programs may be part of the process, but a pain-aware leader will ensure there is a long-term process built on values that will unite and provide vision.

7. Hope. Once there is a vision in place, this in itself will provide hope for the future. At times when I wanted to give up, my wife kept on giving me hope. Her ability to do so directly contributed to my well-being today.

A great leader will always provide enough reasons for the workers to believe that "the best years for our organization are yet to come."

8. Be a person of fairness and new opportunities. Only if the leader is trusted as a fair person who provides opportunities for personal and professional growth will he be able to start addressing the deep issues causing OP.

As leaders, we need to keep learning and growing. This is the only way we will help our organizations grow without unnecessary pain.

I like the challenge offered by Daniel Goleman: "In order for leaders to truly learn something new, they need experiences that are both relevant and frame breaking. The experiences have to be different enough to capture people's imagination but familiar enough to seem relevant."

I am convinced that most any organization can be both "relevant and frame breaking." Both are needed. Organizational Pain can be addressed only if you will approach it in a relevant and frame-breaking manner. Not all pain will disappear.

Occasionally there will be relapses. The sooner you start the process of healing, the sooner your organization will be pain-free and healthy.

9. Celebrate! Every day, every week, every month, create reasons for celebrating successes, however small they may be.

Branimir Schubert teaches at Pacific Adventist University in Papua, New Guinea.


Go Deeper

Managing Change

How does your church know when to resist change and when to embrace it? This theme shows how the apostle Paul changed his methods according to context while keeping the gospel message pure. This theme also includes a church checkup to help your church evaluate its need to change, and articles that explore the resources necessary for change.