Pain in the system

Whether working with an individual or a team, coaches frequently become aware of the existence of pain. Sometimes we feel that pain for and with them. Instinctively, we try to locate the pain, so that we can ease their suffering. And often that leads us to focus on the wrong thing. Much of the time, the source of a pain is not located where the pain is felt. For example, lower back pain may be caused by stress in the shoulders, or a shoulder pain by a damaged muscle in the neck. 

Take the following example, brought recently to supervision. A team coach has been working for over a year with a senior manager reporting to the Executive Committee. She has imposter syndrome, which leads her to be defensive to her boss and other executives and to micromanage her team. The project she leads is mission critical and other departments, which are dependent on her team’s success, are simultaneously sniping and unhelpful. The ExCo has other priorities and simply wants her to “get a grip”, without offering any meaningful support in doing so, while withholding resources that might ease the pressure until she has “shown she can make good use of the resources she has”. Her team, who had been used to a much more freewheeling style from her predecessor, feel unable to speak up. There is a whiff of failure throughout the whole system, yet no-one feels able to address the issues. It’s coming close to the point where firing the manager is inevitable, but the coach is aware that any replacement manager is unlikely to have much greater chance of success. 

Each part of this complex system is seeing the problem through the lens of its own pain. Yet the pain can only be assuaged by addressing the pains of the whole system. The coach’s starting point is to make each element in the system aware of the how the pains are generated and amplified between them. A pain map identifies where the pain is felt and where it is generated, so that everyone in the system understands it from the perspective of everyone else. Armed with this knowledge, they can find ways to collaborate to reduce pain elsewhere in the system, with the expectation that this will result in an easing of their own pain. The map may add detail by describing the kind of pain – for example, sudden sharp pains, constant irritation or chronic, long-term suffering. 

To take the concept to a further layer of complexity, the coach can support all the players in the system to explore pain through the analogy of Eyes, Ears, Nose, Heart, Gut, Arms, Legs, Blood and Brain. Each of these systems provides a different perspective that enriches understanding of the pain each element feels. So, for example: 

  • Eyes: What is happening that no-one wants to acknowledge? 
  • Ears: What and who is not being heard? 
  • Nose: Where are the dead bodies rotting? 
  • Heart: Who is unloved? 
  • Guts: Where is there a lack of courage? 
  • Arms: Who is holding us and giving comfort?
  • Legs: What are we running away from? 
  • Blood: What is sapping our energy? 
  • Brain: How do the headaches of the system prevent us from thinking clearly? 

To summarise, thinking about pain is painful – which is why we avoid it. Coaches and especially team coaches can help clients, teams and organisations step outside of limiting, symptom-based perspectives to recognise and manage pain systemically and holistically. Just like physical pain, it isn’t always possible to banish systemic pain in organisations completely – but it is possible to manage it better and the more we understand it, the easier it is to manage. 

Copyright David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved. 

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