By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal
In early 1993 a friend recommended a book to me. He knew that my professional work mission was to do whatever I could to help business owners, managers and employees take the suffering out of the workplace.
My friend also knew that what I was about often got interpreted as making the work place fun, or nicer or some such notion that made those with a bottom line orientation look askance at my work, and frequently referred to what I was pitching as soft — that was by way of insulting my propositions, not complimenting them.
With this as a background you might then understand why my employees encouraged me to stay away from using the term suffering when pitching a proposal to a potential client.
“After all,” they would say, “who wants to think of their business or place of work as an occasion for suffering, talk about doing things better, faster, cheaper!”
Allow me to step back for a moment and define more clearly what I define as suffering.
Every line of work or endeavor has what I would consider its points of pain. If we define pain as discomfort, physical, emotional or psychological that can easily be understood in the context in which they occur. Sometimes we use terms like stress to describe what might otherwise be termed emotional or psychological pain.
An example might be the stress associated with recognizing that you are going to have trouble meeting payroll this month, if you are a business owner let’s say. That stress is a natural part of the context of operating a business. What isn’t a natural part of the context of the situation is the acting out of stress in ways such as berating those around you, blaming others, using insulting language directed at those who have nothing to do with the cash shortfall, or the loss of goodwill resulting from lashing out at those who have nothing to do with the problem. This type of response to a naturally recurring issue consistent with the context is what I refer to as suffering — it is understandable, yet unnatural and, added to the situation, in response to pain of some sort.
It may sound like I am splitting hairs and I know my definitions of both pain and suffering do not necessarily correspond to the dictionary definition of these terms.
But for me, distinguishing pain from suffering in the context of any relationship was strategic. Pain, in my view, was natural to any context in life; you might say it was appropriate and easily understood, like the physical pain of exhaustion experienced when working late into the night on an important project.
Pain fits the circumstances and it can often be eliminated by addressing the process. In my case, for example, as a young boy I wanted to play tackle football with my schoolmates.
I went out for the team my sophomore years in high school and in both instances got kicked in the chest the second day of practice and experienced cracked ribs, lots of pain — easily understood but along with the pain of the healing and not playing came the suffering associated with longing to play and be seen as someone who was up to the challenge.
The solution, my senior year, still weighing in at 118 pounds, I recognized that maybe I was not cut out for the conditions natural to football. So I made a choice, I ran cross country. There was pain there as well, but pain I could sustain. The result: modest success as a long-distance runner, pain I could both understand and endure and, as importantly, the elimination of the suffering brought on by the inability to accept my own limitations in relationship to the demands of the game of tackle football.
So, what about in the workplace, no tackling, right?
Not so fast, my friends. What about when a co-worker misses a delivery date and refuses to accept responsibility, using a “dog ate my homework” type of excuse. The need to make the deadline had brought with it the pain of shifting priorities and planning ahead to make multiple commitments. But now, being let down, while painful itself, gets the added benefit of the suffering associated with being letdown by a co-worker and facing the responsibility and consequences of addressing a customer with nothing but a lame excuse from the co-worker and limited prospects of recovering the customer’s good faith.
Twenty-five years after I got started, someone coined the term employee engagement, and through research demonstrated the companies with higher levels of employee engagement were also more profitable.
It turns out that employee engagement was an easier concept to digest than suffering so now we talk about that. I don’t really care who gets the credit, I remain committed to reducing suffering in the workplace.
Oh yes, the book my friend recommended is called ‘The Heart Aroused’ by David Whyte, I strongly recommend it.