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Teamwork, Leadership and Suffering


One of the most prevailing approaches to modern life, if not the predominant one, is the desire to avoid suffering. So much of our lives—and our economy—is involved in finding ways to get through our days without having to face the physical and emotional difficulties that are ultimately inevitable.

Evidence of this can be found in everything from the existence of hundreds of types of pain relievers (Extra Strength Tylenol Cold Gel Caps for Left-handed Children) to the bogus advertisements for miraculous weight loss solutions (Eat All You Want and Never Exercise!) to the preponderance of self-help books encouraging us to avoid guilt and personal responsibility for our actions by assigning blame and responsibility to a parent, teacher or family pet.

Of course this is understandable. None of us seeks out opportunities to suffer, and so none of us is immune from the temptation to avoid it. However, our inability to understand the inevitability and necessity of suffering has its costs.

When people fear suffering more than they should, they ironically experience unnecessary anguish and stress. Beyond that, some would say that worrying actually increases the likelihood that what is being feared will happen. Finally, our distaste for suffering makes it difficult for us to benefit from its effects, and from realizing the benefits that it yields when we emerge on the other side.

This is certainly true when it comes to teamwork and leadership, although a better term for suffering might be discomfort. All too often, team leaders and members operate under the assumption that success is dependent on never having to deal with a moment of interpersonal awkwardness or pain. This, of course, makes it virtually impossible—no, it makes it completely impossible—to achieve any real breakthroughs in building a team.

Every great team must suffer a little, and sometimes a lot, in order to achieve greatness. It must confront, experience and struggle with uncomfortable and relationship-threatening moments of conflict and confusion, and then it must work through those moments by demonstrating interpersonal courage, persistence and forgiveness. By doing so, it establishes levels of trust that simply cannot be otherwise achieved.

For those of us who are tempted to be skeptical about this, to continue searching for a team-building process that is painless and discomfort-free, we should look at family and marriage to give us clarity. When we realize that no great family or marriage can be formed—or maintained—without the willingness to enter the danger of interpersonal conflict and discomfort, we may begin to appreciate the importance of doing so on our teams.

Ironically, by doing so, a team will begin to diminish the level of awkwardness that it experiences, as well as the length of time that a given situation lasts. Most important of all, it will create an environment of honest, natural communication and interaction. And that is worth a lot more than the false benefits of avoiding discomfort in the first place.