Why Embracing Discomfort is Crucial for Transformation

For Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack, the big “aha moment” happened while watching TV footage of the Parkland high school students walking out of school after the shooting.

“I watched these kids being escorted out of school with their hands up,” he said on a podcast from last October. “Watching those kids had a profound affect on me.”

After years of doing nothing to address the gun violence crisis in America, that scene punched him in the gut and became the tipping point. Stack’s discomfort with change became preferable to the pain of doing nothing, and he acted accordingly. Dick’s Sporting Goods destroyed over $5 million in military-style, semiautomatic rifles and are reviewing whether to continue selling guns it its more than 720 stores1.

But we hardly need such a dramatic example to illustrate the pervasive resistance to change in our organizations (and in our lives.) Whether change involves a great deal of pain, or a mild sense of discomfort, we are wired to avoid it. As neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain hates change. And no matter how logical or rational the case for change is, humans are emotional creatures. If the brain decides a change is threatening, it will resist and go into a “fight or flight” in response2.

Which brings us to organizational change. How many times have we diligently done our research, gathered our facts and presented an air-tight case for the need for change to leaders, only to have them nod their heads in agreement, engage in some good discussion…and then see nothing happen beyond well-intentioned lip service? The same behaviors visibly persist and are rewarded. Systems undergo incremental modifications that are hardly noticeable. And people are exhausted by the talk that never results in action, resulting in further diminished trust and a “flavor of the month” cynicism.

The Corporate graveyard is littered with companies that “knew” they had to change but didn’t…to their demise.

The truth is at the heart of it, change is really not an organizational effort. It is personal. It is a decision each individual makes. And intellectually understanding that change needs to happen is not the same thing as feeling the need for change to happen.

In my 20+ years helping leaders understand how to identify their business problems and enact company-wide changes to root them out, I can say this with confidence: No one, and I mean NO ONE, likes to go on these painful journeys. In fact, we all go to great lengths to avoid uncomfortable situations every day.

Creating the healthy discomfort required for change takes a bit of courage and a lot of trust. We recently worked with a CEO of a global technology company who knew that the culture of the company needed to be overhauled in order to stay competitive. After talking to hundreds of employees and senior leaders, the verdict was clear. People had grown complacent; they were hindered by process and bureaucracy, and there was a pervasive culture of fear – no one wanted to take chances or make mistakes for fear of the consequences. And the change needed to start from the top.

When it came time to share these findings with the Executive Team, our clients were brave. Instead of presenting in a typical PPT presentation and potentially “soft peddling” the bad news, they wanted to create an experience where the team would feel the impact.

To create this impact, we used voice actors to record actual quotes from employees and leaders around each theme, loaded them onto MP3 players and created a “gallery experience” where leaders walked from theme to theme listening to the voices. It was incredibly quiet (and a bit uncomfortable for me) while they listened for 20 minutes. Then they took their headphones off and came back to the table. “That was a powerful experience,” one of the Executive team members said, “How can we recreate this for our top 200 leaders?”

That moment became a catalyst of true change for this team.

Much has been written (thank you Brené Brown!) about vulnerability in leadership, and vulnerability and discomfort go hand in hand. In fact, truly courageous leaders have found success in sharing their painful moment in real time. When it’s fresh and raw, their reason-for-change narrative becomes so much more powerful for listeners. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is the perfect example.

Five years ago, he experienced a very painful and public “aha moment,” which he later credited as the key trigger in his decision to overhaul his company’s approach to diversity and inclusion. At an event celebrating women in computing, he made an insensitive remark about why women shouldn’t have to ask for a pay raise.

The blowback was swift. Almost immediately, Nadella owned up to his mistake. Instead of defending his comments, he apologized to all of his employees. He explained how the event had forced him to confront an unconscious bias he didn’t know he had, so vowed to change. And he did.

He didn’t have a perfect solution in place then, but he seized on his moment of discomfort to inspire his staff to come on the change journey with him, and to examine their own unconscious biases. It worked. According to an article in Fast Company, the company generated more than $250 billion in market value since then, crediting much of their success to this culture shift.

Oftentimes, resistance to change in corporate life is a kind of natural cynicism, as well as exhaustion. Most err on the side of what can’t be done or “how things have always been,” versus what’s possible. Part of what makes a good leader is knowing how to internalize an uncomfortable moment, use it to crack through this cynicism, and weave a shared narrative for change, together. As Michelle Obama said in her 2016 speech at Howard University: “Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zone and soar, all right?”


1Holson, Laura M. (2019 October). Dick’s Sporting Goods Destroyed $5 Million Worth of Guns. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/business/dicks-sporting-goods-destroying-guns-rifles.html

2 What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Change Management. Retrieved from: https://www.laserfiche.com/ecmblog/what-neuroscience-teaches-us-about-change-management/#

Michelle Mahony, Senior Principal

Michelle Mahony, Senior Principal

Michelle Mahony is a Senior Principal at Daggerwing Group. She is passionate about helping organizations navigate through transformational change, with an eye towards creating leaders and employees who are energized, rather than exhausted, by the opportunities change creates. Within this context, she helps clients foster cultures that deliver the desired experience for customers and enable employees to thrive, and she co-creates inspiring yet down-to-earth solutions to solve organizational challenges. In her spare time, she enjoys singing 70’s pop songs badly while playing her ukulele, buying old musty records and spending tons of time in the woods and on snowy mountains.

Global top 10 rating

SIGN UP for Daggerwing Group’s Hot Topics email series