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the pain of change is the first arrow, the suffering is our own creation

August 31, 2015

Why does change in organisations cause so much unnecessary suffering? We accept that some short-term pain may be a consequence of change but who signs up for the suffering?

Listening to a lecture by Tara Brach recently I was struck by how apt the Buddhist metaphor for suffering is for organisations and how the people in them respond to change.


The concept is one of two arrows. The first arrow is the one that pierces our flesh and causes us pain. In a way, that is how it should be. Pain is a report to our brain that some damage has been done to the integrity of the organism and the nature of that report is often specific to the type of damage being done. A burn is experienced differently to a cut and a fracture differently to a muscle strain.

All organisations and teams have mechanisms for sensing pain when some damage has been done to the integrity of the organism. KPI’s, budgets, incident reporting, customer feedback and staff turnover are all reports on the state of the organism. While they can be sources of pleasure they are often sources of pain.

In the body, a report of pain to our brain is meant to prompt some form of response. As best it can, it draws our attention to site from which the pain originates so that we can take action to prevent further damage or applying measures to allow our body to begin to heal the damage – a bandage, a split or maybe a change in behaviour.

So too in the organisation, missed KPI’s, budget blowouts, complaints and high staff turnover are reports meant to prompt some form of response. They draw attention to the aspect of the organisation that is the source of that pain so that action can be taken to prevent further damage. Those actions most often result in organisational change – reductions in spending, safety time-outs, audits, changes in how performance is managed – changes that are intended to prevent further damage and allow the organisation to heal.

The pain of organisational change comes from the first arrow.

All suffering we experience as a result of that change comes from the second arrow. The second arrows are the one we inflict on ourselves and they are entirely of our own creation. The suffering is what we create when we start thinking about the pain, how intense it might get or how long it might last.

“That looks really bad, I don’t think we can survive another quarter with those sort of figures.”

We suffer when we decide we are going to fight the pain rather than see it for what it is.

“Implementing this new performance management system is a complete waste of my time. Didn’t work the last two times, isn’t going to help now.”

To reduce the suffering you experience from organisational change use the pain you are (rightly) feeling as a prompt to take positive action. Don’t ignore the pain – ignoring an arrow in your leg will not make it go away; don’t sit there and wait for someone else to do something about it – they are busy dealing with their own arrows! Take action to prevent further damage, action that starts the healing process.

That doesn’t mean the pain will magically disappear but it will go a long way to reducing your suffering.


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