Phantom and referred pain in organizations

Until this very day, with over 45 years of experience, whenever I have even a challenging meeting with a client, I get strange pains in body. My eyelids twitch, my breathing becomes shallow, my digestion backfires or my clothes feel tight. In the past, I had baffled many doctors with these pains. Once, a week before a meeting in LA between 3 companies that were merging into one, I was sure that my eyesight was declining in one eye. And my shoulder ached something awful. After the meeting (which was difficult but successful), I was fine again.

The aches, pains and weird symptoms, that is the transfer of mental and emotional stress to other symptoms are called referred pains. The “something that hurts, is something else”.

I am never ever stressed about the upcoming events themselves; no CEO is too challenging for me. I can facilitate the most difficult of problems with ease. I simply get aches and pains that vanish after the event.

The “transfer of symptoms” from actual source of pain itself to somewhere else occurs in organizations as well as people.

Here are a few examples.

1-People do not speak up in meetings about certain slips in schedule. Progress reports step-side quality issues. Risks are played down. The not-at-all obvious reason? A client has been sold a very poor product that will not work as promised when delivered. However, some of the features of the dysfunctional product will provide just enough value to provide the client with a strategic advantage over its competitor. That is the skeleton in the closet. The CEO’s of the seller and the buyer know that explicitly-no one else does, except for everyone.

2-Jimmy is a horrendous CEO. His technical skills are outdated; his relationships with investors are tense and his staff hates him. He has been managing the company for 5 years. The hidden reason: the 5 investors each think that they can run the company better than the others. Jimmy allows them to continue to fight, and not resolve their differences; this status quo preserves another company of theirs which is doing very well and funding all their escapades.

3-JIT has 14 outlets in 3 districts. All outlets are doing well, except for one outlet in each district. Every attempt to get these three failing district outlets to change course fails. What’s the skeleton in the closet? Management needs a failed outlet in each district to write off expenses in order to pay less tax.

4-Beware if asked to “strengthen middle management”; that issue is almost always a phantom pain, the root cause of which is a double message from senior management, contradicting priorities, poor teamwork at the top, or overzealous HR manager, who wants to control something but is not strong enough to be relevant.

So how do we get our hand around issues which surface like phantom or referred pains?  Here are a few guidelines:

  • The obvious may not be so obviously obvious.
  • What is not said is part of the diagnosis. There are problems no one talks about.
  • An impacted tooth may not hurt.
  • Look for hidden agendas even when things make sense, and always when they don’t.

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2 thoughts on “Phantom and referred pain in organizations

    • It’s funny that you ask.
      I started taking a very small amount of blood pressure beta blocker 6 months ago….and it stopped.
      My MD says that it makes sense since beta blockers slow down adrenaline secretion.

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