“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch
More than the acquisition of stuff, we strive to live a comfortable existence. Whether it’s our 60″ 4K TV, heated car seats or Lamborghini’s $6,000 Android phone (yes, that’s a thing), we strive to attain and, more importantly, retain comfort.
Of course, comfort is relative. In many countries, comfort might be defined as access to clean water. When we hear the the term “comfort zone”, it’s obvious that it has different boundaries for different people.
The Safety and Security of Our Comfort Zone
No matter how it’s defined, we feel safer when we have comfort. The comfort items themselves are ok. It’s our attachment to those items that creates fear when we consider stepping foot outside of that comfort.
As we know from the Space Between Model, it’s fear that creates stressors and causes us to retreat back to our comfortable space.
As a leader, what does your comfort zone feel like?
Perhaps, it’s the security of knowing that you possess the knowledge and skills to do your job, including people-management.
But that’s not real life. Leadership necessarily commits us to standing on the edge of our comfort zone to see what lies beyond. Promoting someone into her/his first leadership role without providing some training on the characteristics of a successful leader can lead to disaster.
As a new Operations Vice-President for a long-term care management company, I was accountable for the success of multiple nursing facilities across the country. One of my first responsibilities was to find someone to fill the role of Regional VP to oversee those located in one particular state.
Because we liked to promote from within when a capable candidate was available, I took the opportunity to promote one of the facilities’ Administrators. She was bright, very successful in running her facility and eager to take on challenges.
Unfortunately, I made the poor assumption that, because of her solid leadership of her individual business unit, she could seamlessly translate that success to her new regional role.
As you probably guessed, she ended up trying to manage all of her facilities like the one she was promoted from. The micromanagement not only harmed the relationships with the other Administrators but she burned out from not delegating and trying to do too much.
Despite her willingness to stretch herself outside of her comfort zone, I didn’t provide her with the coaching necessary to set her up for success.
As leaders, we have to be aware of the risk involved in testing new waters and the potential impact of failure (i.e., retreating back to our comfort zones). Had I given her the tools for success, she would likely have had a more positive experience and been more likely to further stretch the borders of her comfort zone.
When we consider taking risks in our roles, we naturally tend to focus on the potential negative consequences first. However, research tells us that, when we make challenges available and provide the necessary support, we can improve emotional intelligence (esp. self-awareness), the most critical indicator of leadership success.
In fact, when we consider the risk/reward of new challenges and consistently choose not to take those chances, we create a new stressor – a negatively-reinforcing loop of putting our toe in the water and pulling it back out, over and over again.
“If I applied for that promotion, I could provide a better lifestyle for my family but, if I get it and am not successful, I risk losing everything.”
“I don’t like how this newly-implemented process is effecting the quality of our service but, if I speak up, I might get labeled as a ‘troublemaker’ that might jeopardize everything I’ve worked so hard for.“
Of course, by choosing the risk-averse way, we only end up judging ourselves harshly (a primary no-no of mindful leadership) by labeling ourselves as “weak” or “chicken” while rationalizing our fear by standing pat with our static skill set.
It’s easy to forget that risk is defined as an unwanted event that may or may not occur.
We default to risk being negative because of our fear of the potential results and how they might affect us.
Our Four Fatal Fears
Nothing in life comes easy and fear is something we can’t avoid. As a big fan of Max Maultsby’s Four Fatal Fears, I like to view the fear of extending our comfort zone boundaries through Maultsby’s lens:
Fear of Failure (“I need to succeed“)
Many of us have had hyper-critical authority figures in our lives and, as a result, have become afraid of the consequences of failing. Many others have experienced traumatic events that have contributed to an aversion to risk-taking.
- Example: While working for a previous employer, you designed and implemented a successful employee recognition program that not only helped the company retain their best workers but also recruit new ones. However, your new employer has had a string of highly-criticized retention programs. You’ve witnessed the consequences of your peers not succeeding with their ideas so you choose to keep your previously-successful program to yourself. Over the next six months, turnover doubles. Morale and, consequently, productivity are badly damaged.
Fear of being wrong (“I must be right“)
Over time, our opinions start to feel like facts due to years of careful consideration. As a result, the line between fact and opinion starts to blur in our minds. This creates tremendous stress when others voice a differing opinion because it feels like the other person simply doesn’t understand the “facts”. After a series of angry confrontations where we don’t allow ourselves to be open to another opinion, we shut down to protect our fragile egos.
- Example: Your company is considering implementing a blanket drug testing policy for front-line workers. You firmly believe that instituting that policy would be an invasion of employee privacy and might stir up unneeded legal hassles. However, you’re unsure of what the most recent legal decisions have been regarding the issue and decide that it’s best to stay quiet about the issue. The policy is implemented and, within weeks, the ACLU has filed suit on behalf of several of the affected front-line workers.
Fear of rejection (“I need to be accepted“)
Oftentimes, we have ideas that we believe would be helpful to our teams or the organization as a whole but we’re afraid that, if those ideas were implemented and failed to produce the necessary outcomes, people will be less likely to utilize our suggestions in the future.
- Example: There has been a spate of industrial accidents amongst your company’s competitors and you think it would be worth the investment to conduct more frequent internal safety reviews. However, if the cost of the additional reviews doesn’t yield any significant safety concerns, you are afraid of being labeled as paranoid so you keep the idea to yourself. A month later, a catastrophic accident, that could have been prevented by more frequent oversight, closes the plant.
Fear of being emotionally uncomfortable (“I need to be comfortable“)
Outside of work, it’s easier to control our exposure to things that make us uncomfortable. We avoid scary movies, we steer clear of political conversations with others so we don’t risk confrontation, we don’t volunteer for activities because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. However, as leaders, we cannot hide.
- Example: Your organization has committed to a more mindful leadership culture which will require additional training. One afternoon is dedicated to doing role playing in order to practice coaching and empowering your direct reports. You don’t like feeling like you’re “on a stage” so you make an excuse to go home early in order to avoid the exercise. A month later, you’re struggling in coaching sessions with your team and their productivity is suffering.
Mindfulness teaches us to stay in the present moment by managing distracting or worrying thoughts of the past and the future. It also teaches us to consciously differentiate between things over which we have control and those we don’t – an important skill when deciding to extend our comfort zone.
Rather than running away from discomfort, mindful leaders welcome it as evidence of our willingness to try something new. We grow our own patience as we learn how to not let discomfort stress us out.
One of the ways to think about overcoming our fear of stepping outside our comfort zones is to, instead, picture it as extending the boundaries of that zone.
The image of taking a step into a scary abyss is more likely to lead to resistance than to merely expanding the edges of our existing comfort. It’s a “bigger you” (that doesn’t need a diet!).
By extending your zone’s boundaries, you’ll find new strengths and skills you didn’t know you had. Some people who are burned out can discover new career paths that reignite their occupational passions.
Conversely, you might become more engaged in your current role, giving you a new and more positive attitude. Regardless, you’ll certainly wake up your self-confidence by overcoming whatever combination of the Four Fatal Fears you’ve been previously finding comfort in.
Today, every leader is looking for that edge that will make him/herself more valuable to current and future employers. I can guarantee you that most organizations are more interested in someone who’s taken risks (regardless of their degree of success) and broadened their base of experiences.
Mindful leadership also asks what changes you can make to yourself that will incentivize others to follow your lead.
Pay attention to how you label yourself. There are so many personality assessments out there (e.g., MBTI, GPTP, Majors PTI) that, when not administered properly, can stamp someone unfairly. For example, if you catch yourself using statements like “I’m an introvert” as an excuse not to broaden your boundaries, pay attention to how often that becomes your safety net. Move your focus outside your own mind and toward others so you steer clear of self-labeling.
I had a wonderful leadership team member who, when asked, couldn’t name one of her strengths. Sometimes, that’s a function of not reinforcing accomplishments as they occur but if you’re falling back on humblebrags to get out of taking risks (e.g., “Oh, you wouldn’t want me to lead the team. I’m no good at that kind of stuff.”), your colleagues need to call you out on it.
The easiest way to derail risk-taking is to set your goals too high.
There’s no shame in biting off the small and digestible low-hanging fruit, feeling good and building on it. For example, you’re going to share one idea in today’s team meeting rather than merely agreeing with somebody else’s.
Take some initiative to gain knowledge about aspects of leadership that could benefit your organization. Do a Google search of unique leadership techniques or successful leaders. Even better, sit in one of our webinars! Building confidence about specific topics gives you solid footing when sharing your opinions.
In mindful practice, we often set environmental cues to remind us to pay attention to what’s happening in the current moment. For example, every time I see the color red today, it will remind me to check to see if I’m being distracted and, as a result, less effective at what I need to be focused on.
You can do the same thing with broadening your comfort zone. For example, you could say that every time you enter into a conversation today, you’re going to contribute something new. Maybe that’s too aggressive to start with and, if so, come up with something else but practice builds routine every time.
Finally, have some fun with it!
Purposely show up to work wearing different color socks and give a dollar to the first person who notices. Throw the agenda away at the next meeting you lead and ask what others want to cover. Ask your direct reports to address you as “the Duchess of Baconberry” for the rest of the day. You’ll get some funny looks followed by some feedback, “Erik – where’s that sense of humor been hiding all this time? I love it!”
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
- What are three things in your role as a leader that you’d like to do but are afraid to? Are they actions you’d take? Conversations you’d have? New opportunities you’d seek? New relationships you’d form?
- Which of the Four Fatal Fears best describes your fear of doing those three things you listed above? Dig in and be honest with yourself.
- Which self-limiting labels do you use (e.g., “I’m an introvert”, “I have to process things before I feel like offering my opinion”)?
- How do your fears derail your self-esteem?
- What steps can you start taking today to extend the edges of your comfort zone?