Does Pain Really Make People Change?


Often, I have heard in change management processes that people need to feel the pain. Otherwise, they would never be willing to change their way of working. Pain is even the means to a successful change process–in particular, when we come to restructuring an organization, managers often believe that social pain cannot be avoided. But how effective is social pain during change processes? Doesn’t an alternative exist without social pain?


For years, neuroscientists have clearly been demonstrating in a number of interesting studies that experiencing social pain actually activates the same brain regions as physical pain. Researchers in Italy also found that witnessing the social pain of another person activated a similar physical pain response of empathy in most test subjects. Previous research on the brain science of empathy has indicated that the threat of pain to oneself is directly correlated to the brain regions of a threat of pain to a related person. In an organizational context, this makes the knowledge of a network within the social community of an organization very useful. Knowing who is related to whom would possible indicate the effect of an organizational change on the directly-affected people as well as to their colleagues. We could then design individual intervention programs in order to support the individuals during their change processes. In “On Death and Dying”, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross already outlined in 1969 how to help people deal with deep loss. Later, Kübler-Ross regretted the way the theory had been used saying “there is no typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.  We can’t ‘tuck messy emotions into neat packages’ ”–so we need to know the individuals. Unfortunately, very often these networks are not transparent within an organization because too much interest from the management’s perspective is put on hierarchical structures–as they define the functional power structure of an organization–and too little interest is put on the network organization even though we know that it is the network which (de-)motivates its actors to bring top performance for business success.


Some years ago, I was very impressed with a case study which showed that reorganization could be performed without any social pain. Due to financial reasons, a company (in a production business) had to restructure its organization significantly. The management of that company had no other choice than to lay off people. The company was located in a rural area. Finding a new job in the immediate surroundings was hardly possible. Nevertheless, the management team decided to set the following goal for itself: Employee satisfaction was supposed to increase during the restructuring process. Indeed, they were able to accomplish that at the end of the transformational process because they showed that they very much cared about the people leaving the company as well as about the people who remained. First, they allowed the employees to participate in the selection process. In this way, they supported the factor of fairness during the transformational process (see the SCARF model in NeuroLeadership). Second, they were able to “extend” the factor of relativeness beyond the organizational borders. Networks do not know organizational borders and so even people leaving a company can still be part of the networks. This helps both sides to keep in touch. Third, by supporting the people trying to find new jobs, they were able at least to minimize the effects of the reduction in their statuses in the society as many people do feel humiliated once they become unemployed. At the end, the management succeeded and all the employees involved gave very positive feedback regarding the necessary hard decision.


Thus, social pain is undoubtedly real pain. The amount of social support available during a socially-painful event–and a restructuring of an organization is undoubtedly such an event as it (might) exclude people from a (organizational) society–reduces activity in these brain pain-related areas. However, when we play sports, we know that pain is never of great help for improving performance. So why should pain then help us in developing our business? David Rock indicated, with regards to our social awareness circuitry, that people who spend a lot of time being analytical, conceptual, or goal-focused may have diminished mentalizing circuitry simply due to a lack of use. Many managers today are spending too much time analyzing and strategizing. They are not training their social awareness circuitry by becoming involved in mentalizing. Therefore, I advocate changing our educational training and selection procedures for top management in order to focus much more on emotional intelligence. We definitely need more emotional competence in today’s management leadership.