What leaders won’t do? Endure emotional discomfort at work.

Posted on August 27, 2013

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[The following is a truncated version of Patrick Lencioni’s POV (point of view) article, June 2013.]

In the course of my career, I’ve always been amazed at what leaders will do for their organizations. So many founders and CEOs will spend countless late nights in the office, endure long and grueling business trips, even sacrifice their own financial resources, all to increase the likelihood, even slightly, that their enterprises will succeed. Sadly, these efforts often come at the expense of their health, their families and their sanity.

But the one thing that amazes me more than what leaders will do for their enterprises, is what they so often won’t do – endure emotional discomfort at work.

Though this may sound innocuous or obvious, there is nothing trivial about it. In fact, this determination to avoid emotional discomfort is the single most costly and surprising phenomenon I’ve witnessed in business during my career.

…when a political or interpersonal mess occurs in an organization, there is no one more suited to clean it up quickly and efficiently, and eliminate the possibility of collateral damage, than the leader. Few would debate this. And yet, many leaders complain about having to do this part of their job, and in all too many cases they stand back and wait for the problem to go away, or for someone else to deal with it.

Why does this happen? Part of it has to do with the natural fear of conflict and accountability that I cover in some depth in my books The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage. But I think some of it is related to a subtle, perhaps even subconscious, sense of entitlement among leaders.

My sense is that, in addition to simply not enjoying conflict, senior executives often feel that they’ve earned the right to avoid the unpleasant parts of their work, the kind that they had to deal with earlier in their career. They’ve paid their dues on their way up the ladder, and are more than happy to delegate or abdicate parts of their jobs that they don’t enjoy, one of which is almost always having difficult, messy and emotional conversations.

In fact, I’m convinced that if you were to explain to aspiring executives that their job requires them to constantly address messy, uncomfortable interpersonal situations, many would opt out of that career path. Which would actually be a good thing.

The best organizations are the ones where leaders are expected to seek out – yes, seek out! – discomfort at work. They find opportunities to enter the danger whenever they can, realizing that by doing so, they’ll accomplish three productive things. First, they’ll set an example for others to do the same. Second, they’ll improve their own level of “comfort with discomfort.” And most importantly, they’ll reduce the shelf life and impact of problems in their organizations.

Someday, perhaps the majority of leaders will come to realize that embracing discomfort is one of the key indicators of successful organizations. They’ll be too embarrassed to even consider letting a messy situation fester, knowing that it would be a simple matter of negligence to do so. Until then, for those organizations that teach their leaders to embrace discomfort, it remains an opportunity for differentiation and advantage.

Posted in: leadership