Comfort Zones

“Comfort zone” is a wonderful – and wonderfully effective – piece of language.  It communicates in plain English a wise insight about leadership and management in the face of change.

The basic message is this: We are all more comfortable in our comfort zones than out of those comfort zones. Often, however, the challenges at hand demand that we risk stepping beyond our comfort zone if we hope to lead and manage effectively.

Simple, elegant and wise.

And, like other pieces of wisdom, subject to a significant, if subtle, misreading; namely: that it is somehow ‘bad’ to be in our comfort zone.

I was reminded of this yesterday when Marv, a friend (and talented, experienced leader) mentioned, “Hey, I’d rather be in my comfort zone if and when it can get things done easier.”

Here’s what Marv meant. If he and others in his organization faced a performance challenge that could be achieved in their comfort zones, that would be okay. That would not be ‘bad’.

I agree.  We live in a dynamic, chaotic world that confronts us with profound challenges. We are more likely to succeed if we tap into the wisdom about comfort zones. Doing so, though, also demands that we distinguish the aspects of challenges that can be achieved in our comfort zones from those that will require us to step beyond our comfort zones.

Most challenges of any richness and subtleness have both parts. Yet, many of us have inherited an instinctive ‘either/or’ response to clear distinctions . We too often associate ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ to opposing ideas.

We hear about the value of understanding the limits to our ‘comfort zones’ and, as leaders, we overreact. We associate being in our comfort zone as always bad – and outside our comfort zones as always good.

This reaction happens with other distinctions as well. People hear or read, for example, about the ‘team discipline’ versus the ‘single leader discipline’ and quickly link ‘team’ to all that is ‘good’, ‘single leader’ to all that is bad.

For some challenges, though, the single leader discipline (an effective boss who knows how to divide up tasks and hold folks accountable for individual contributions) is the best way to move forward. While, in other performance challenges, the team discipline is best (for example, when the sum of individual best performance simply won’t add up).

Distinctions like “in comfort zone/outside comfort zone” and “single leader discipline/team discipline” are not about either/or or good versus bad. They are about leading effectively in the face of challenge and change.

It seems that many of us are comfortable with instinctively pinning either/or, good/bad onto clear distinctions. That’s a deep aspect of our comfort zone.

My friend Marv is suggesting we might want to move beyond this instinctive good/bad and either/or part of our comfort zone in order, ironically enough, to know when other parts of our comfort zones can help, not hurt, in meeting the challenges ahead.

Yes, this means a risk. We might think the skills and approaches inside our comfort zones will work and be wrong. Indeed, the elegant wisdom of comfort zones is a warning against too easily sticking with our comfort zones.

But the ‘good/bad’ overreaction to comfort zones means that we are at great risk of not picking the comfort zone alternative when it would be best. By making both choices real — by challenging ourselves to use comfort zones as guides to what works and what doesn’t — we all increase the odds of success and, I think, enrich the meaning of distinctions and choices instead of diluting them.

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