Leadership Articles

The Pain Problem

A Feature Article from Leading by God's Design
October, 2016   |   By Dan Gaynor

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“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it - I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while - yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed by us in any way.” (2 Corinthians 7:8-9)

Our opening verses paint a vivid picture of the Apostle Paul wrestling with the internal conflict presented by pain as he sought to correct problems in Corinthian church. While he regrets the pain his letter caused, he also accepts it as necessary and purposeful. There is no question that pain presents a significant problem for many leaders. For many, their reluctance to say or do something that will be painful causes them to choose avoidance over engagement. To develop expert biblically-based performance management practices we must accept pain as a constructive and even essential force.

Pain is so often a part of meaningful change. I know it has been in my life. It often provides the motivation to correct a bad habit, or to lead someone out of the wrong work and into right work, providing for lasting job satisfaction. Surfacing and resolving the big questions about people and their work often entails some pain and it among a leader’s most important work. But when fear of pain prevents leaders from taking these steps both the individual and the team are disadvantaged.

When you become aware of a performance problem, the first step is always to provide corrective feedback - a simple 2-5 minute coaching conversation that describes the situation, the problems it’s giving rise to, and the change that is required. Loving and fair leaders voice their concerns as soon as they arise, they don’t delay. This minimizes damage and provides the best likelihood of a successful correction, but the pain problem often prevents leaders from holding even these initial conversations. The individual loses the opportunity to correct a problem early and the mission must accommodate a poor performer. As performance issues worsen so too does the deterrent effect pain can have on leaders.

When corrective feedback doesn’t bring the change that’s needed, consequences up to and including job loss, should follow. Experience has taught me that pain has a tendency to intensify until it is resolved at its source. This is the way progressive discipline should work. Job loss is painful, often intensely, this we know. At times it provides the motivation needed to learn a lesson and make a necessary change.

Once again, a Christian leader must in all things treat people fairly. This means clear feedback with a clear warning about future consequences when feedback is not acted on. However there is a limit to a leader’s influence, we cannot force the change we would like to see someone else make. When leaders are unwilling to resolve these issues in a timely manner, they become accomplices to the problem.

Pain often motivates change because it forces us to address it at its source, nothing else brings relief. Good leaders never deliberately cause pain for others, however the best all come to accept it, as the Apostle Paul did, as a natural by-product of their work. In doing so, they serve the missions and people they lead.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When has pain played a purposeful role in your life?
  2. When was the last time fear of pain stopped you from taking steps you should have taken to resolve a performance issue? What were the consequences?

Dan Gaynor


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