Pain Rules: Be a Healing Workplace

You’ve probably observed at least a few of these problematic dynamics in your workplace recently:

  • gossip and cliques
  • inter-departmental conflict
  • complaints about management decision-making
  • frustration over a lack of accountability
  • poor supervisor-supervisee interactions
  • repeated demands for more learning opportunities
  • inter-generational misunderstanding
  • certain individuals working late all the time
  • certain individuals doing the absolute minimum
  • arguing over bureaucratic rules
  • talking in circles about poor communication
  • lots of blaming, little risk-taking

This list includes a wide variety of issues that are not all seemingly related. Gossip and cliques is a matter of morale and culture. Complaints about decision-making is a matter of leadership and governance. Demands for learning opportunities is a matter of talent management. Argument over bureaucratic rules is a matter of compliance and process design. So if you’re in a C-suite role and responsible for dealing with these issues, it can seem like a endless laundry list of staff gripes and personality conflicts.

Of course, everyone prefers that people be happy and motivated in the workplace, but it’s exhausting for senior management to try to respond to this litany of “people problems” when we’ve got board meetings to prep for, deals to negotiate, strategies to execute, clients to satisfy, etc. Come to think of it, we can probably add another item to the list of problematic dynamics:

  • an executive team torn between urgent pressures and people problems

It’s remarkable how often these problems arise in workplaces. Yet as different as they are, one characteristic is common to all: Pain. Social or emotional pain. Feelings of exclusion, vulnerability, neglect, isolation, fear, resentment. The reason why each of these troubling dynamics can be so darn difficult to fully resolve is that we tend either to address more comfortable surface issues or to convince everyone to move forward, chins up, and “just do better.” But too rarely do we entertain going directly to heart of the matter by making it safe for people to speak to their felt pain.

Pain is about feelings, and feelings are “unprofessional.” Right? We’re supposed to push all that aside for the sake of the business. If we need to talk about feelings of exclusion, vulnerability, neglect, isolation, fear, resentment, yada, yada, yada…then we’re expected to rely on a friend’s sympathetic ear in a private moment. We generally don’t allow for these themes to infiltrate our problem-solving agendas because that would mean indulging weakness and getting distracted with individual neediness. Or worse, it could get dangerous…because emotional people can’t be trusted to act responsibly. (Oh, and also, so few of us feel prepared to engage in workplace discussions about people’s feelings of pain.) By caving in to emotional appeals, we may only encourage more and more of these feelings.

No, the workplace should not be converted into a regular group psychotherapy session. But we do need to make space for healing practices in the workplace: recognized and accepted techniques for acknowledging and processing emotional dissonance for the sake of every individual thriving while contributing to the whole. We like to create lots of rules, don’t we? So then, how about a set of “pain rules” that create a set of safe boundaries and help us to be a healing workplace?

[This is part one of a two-part article. Check back next week for the conclusion to consider healing practices you can introduce to your workplace.]

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  1. […] part 1 of this article, we recognized a significant challenge faced by so many executives and teams today: creating the […]