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Is that comfort zone past its use-by date?

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 28 August 2018
Comfort is a state we typically aspire to. Financial comfort. Physical comfort. Emotional comfort. Social comfort. We like our comfort zones.

But ... (you knew it was going to get uncomfortable) ...

"The more comfortable we are, the harder it is to change." As the world's leading executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith speaks with authority, having spent decades coaching successful people to get even better. To change. And that requires getting them outside their comfort zones.

He's also recounted his own experiences of moving beyond his comfort zone. One I enjoy is about when he was a young organisational behaviour academic. Dr Paul Hersey invited him to train a client organisation in his Situational Leadership® model. Marshall wasn't sure he could do it. It was a whole new world. A whole new level of challenge. And it turned out the client wasn't that impressed they were getting this young guy instead of the guru, Doc Hersey. At this point he's feeling waaaay outside his comfort zone and telling himself he knew this was a bad idea. But at the end of the conference Marshall was rated the best presenter and the client asked him back. It changed his life (and that change in his life has changed thousands of other lives across the years as a result).

There's a widely-used model comprising three concentric circles depicting our "comfort zone" in the centre, the "learning zone" around and just outside the comfort zone, and then a third, outer zone: the "panic zone". It's pretty hard to learn anything when you're panicking, so let's stay out of that zone.

The principle of the "learning zone" model is that in order to grow we have to be willing to stretch ourselves beyond our zone of comfort. And that, of course, means we are going to feel uncomfortable, awkward, maybe a bit stressed. Sadly, our love of comfort and our desire to avoid discomfort can conspire to restrict our learning, which helps to explain why change is so hard. Especially when we're already comfortable.

"Fear of change can keep us stuck in situations which are past their use-by date," says Sue Watling, a teaching enhancement advisor at the University of Hull. We need some zones of comfort, for sure, but some may be past their usefulness and in need of a little stretching.

Most of us want to change in some way. Maybe change our job. Or change the way we do our job. Perhaps change where we live or something about the way we live. We may want to change a habit or improve our health. But it's not easy to do those things. And when we try to make a change - change our morning routine or our exercise habits, or change our spending patterns or adapt an interpersonal behaviour - we often experience discomfort, awkwardness, self-consciousness, or even initial failure. And that doesn't feel good at all, which can encourage us to retreat to the safety of the comfort zone. Where nothing changes. (And the issue ages further past its use-by date.)

The learning zone is, by definition, unfamiliar territory. But it doesn't have to scare us into inaction. In fact, the learning zone is a natural attractor when we understand it better as a growth experience. A couple of lines from David Viscott's book, Finding Your Strengths in Difficult Times, offer some useful perspective on the discomfort of venturing into learning zones:

"If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do. But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence. This means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don't quite know what you're doing, know that you are growing."

So one way to interpret our learning zone experiences is to reframe the anxiety or uncertainty we often experience as "stimulating stress" important physical, mental and emotional signals that are telling us to "pay attention" because this is new and potentially rewarding.

Isn't it true that some of our most rewarding experiences have begun with uncertainty, even fear, or perhaps doubt?

You can probably recall a time when you've either put yourself outside your comfort zone or have been "pushed" outside it and (perhaps taking a deep breath) decided to embrace the opportunity rather than retreat from it. We're usually glad we took the step (or that we were pushed) because those situations can change our lives.

These "stretch" experiences are not just valuable, we are actually "wired" for the growth and learning they offer, according to Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. In his new book, Alive at Work, he describes the central role of what he calls our "seeking system".

"Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopaminea neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasurethat makes us want to explore more.

"Exploring, experimenting, learning: this is the way we're designed to live. And work, too."

Sometimes these learning zone opportunities are presented to us and we have to take a deep breath and step out of our comfort zone. Sometimes we find ourselves pushed into the learning zone with few options other than to embrace it or retreat to the past. Sometimes we have to search for the learning zone so we can create an expanded future for ourselves. And sometimes we are in the position to provide learning zone opportunities to others.

There's no value in allowing comfort zones to trap us in states that are past their usefulness. The challenge is to be alert to learning zone opportunities and the "stretching" challenges they provide.  Because "the more comfortable we are, the harder it is to change".

And if you'd like some recommended resources to encourage you in your journey into the learning zone, I recommend:
Triggers: Creating behavior that lasts, becoming the person you want to be, by Marshall Goldsmith.
The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth.
Alive at Work: The neuroscience of helping your people love what they do, by Dan Cable.
Leading the Life You Want: Skills for integrating work and life, by Stewart Friedman.

My final public Situational Leadership workshop in Sydney for 2018 will be on Monday 3 December ... contact me for information and registration, or go to the Situational Leadership page to find out more ...

Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies


Cable, D. (2018). Alive at Work: The neuroscience of helping your people love what they do.
Viscott, D. (2003). Find Your Strengths in Difficult Times
Watling, S. (2016). Panic buttons and transitional states of being. Digital Academic (26 February). https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/tag/senningers-learning-zone-model/

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2018
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