I don't think anyone likes pain. I know I don't. I'm not talking about physical pain but the mental type-the kind we face when we have to make an unpleasant decision, especially in the workplace. A lot of businesses end up in trouble because top management avoids the truth and fails to act decisively. When that happens, the organization could be in a tailspin before anybody realizes what's happening. Customers start to pull away, morale sags, and the bottom line goes south. All because bright and talented people don't have the guts to make difficult decisions.
This point is driven home very effectively in a couple of articles that crossed my desk recently. One appeared in the premier issue of Leadership Strategies, a publication of Georgetown Publishing House in Washington. The other was by John Graham, president of Graham Communications, Quincy, Mass. The title of the article in the newsletter is "The Secret All Successful Leaders Know: Pain Is Good!" It's a condensed version of a piece that appeared in Fortune magazine. According to Michael Jensen of Harvard University, pain is beneficial. He's specifically talking about managers' willingness to make the hard calls. According to Jensen, those who continue to avoid tough decisions simply won't make the cut in the next century. He believes many of us operate under what he terms the Pain Avoidance Model, which he says is a "set of responses imprinted in our minds that helps us escape pain by readying us to fight danger or flee from it." Jensen describes the model this way: "If an executive hears a negative report, his brain can stop registering. He can choose not to confront unpleasant realities." Jensen contends such reactions can cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.
John Graham talks about the same subject from a different perspective. The title of his provocative paper is "Faulty Thinking Results in Inappropriate Action: How to Stop Handing Business to the Competition." He begins his hypothesis with these words: "Most businesses fail to achieve their potential because of faulty thinking. It happens because business executives, owners and managers don't like news that runs contrary to the pictures inside their heads. While those delivering unacceptable messages to a manager or executive no longer lose their heads as they did centuries ago, they can lose their jobs. As a result, those who need to know the truth first are often the last to get it. Everyone in business should never forget the classic case of the Sears catalog. Thirty years of dramatic losses were hidden by top executives. Finally, a courageous new CEO closed the operation."
Later Graham asks: "Why does it take so long for the negative news to get to the top? Why do those sitting around the table fail to speak up? No one wants to hear bad news. In fact, we tune it out. Rather than processing it, we get rid of it. `Sure, sales have gone down, but just wait until next quarter.' Next quarter comes, and then we hear, `We took a hit with the bad weather.' "
Graham offers these steps to help organizations "get closer to the real world so they don't hand business to their competitors." 1. Hiring more salespeople doesn't necessarily mean more sales. Rather, it's more important to focus on who the customers are and whether they are likely to buy or not. 2. Start being customer-focused. He believes too many companies offer a bunch of "self-serving nonsense" by saying, "We're the best (Who says so?)" or "Let our experts . . . (Who says they're experts?)" or "30 years in the same location (What's the value to the customer?)." Companies often use phrases like these to bolster the way they see themselves rather than examining how their customers see them.
It all comes down to facing reality. That's what Jensen and Graham espouse. Too many executives and their companies don't face the hard, cold truth. And that's usually the beginning of the end.
Charles S. Lauer