No one likes to move beyond his or her comfort zone, but as the saying goes, that’s where the magic happens. It’s where we can grow, learn, and develop in a way that expands our horizons beyond what we thought was possible. Also, it’s terrifying for many people. In an ideal world, no one would have to stretch beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. But unfortunately, this is not usually the case.
Conflict-avoidant managers often need to embrace conflict—or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves and their ideas . . . introverts need to network . . . self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches . . . and people pleasers need to deliver bad news. And as my research suggests, for your company to thrive and survive in a world of constant change, you have to start paying attention to ways you can encourage your employees to step outside their comfort zones. Because if you can’t – and they can’t – it’s unlikely your company will react to change in the nimble way it needs to in order to thrive and survive in a volatile, uncertain and complex world. So, what can you do to help your employees stretch outside their comfort zones? My research suggests four key steps:
Step 1 is to help your employees avoid avoidance. When something is outside our comfort zones, it’s so easy to avoid. If we’re afraid of participating in meetings, we’ll tell ourselves quite convincingly that, “Participating just isn’t that important.” Or if we’re afraid of public speaking, we might say to ourselves (or to others) that it’s just not the best use of our time. These statements may be true, but they also may be masking the reality of the situation: that your employees are afraid of speaking up or speaking in public and can’t get themselves to admit it. What I’ve found extremely helpful in these circumstances is to have employees ask themselves this question: If you didn’t experience any anxiety at all in your chosen situation — if it were completely comfortable and stress free — would it be something you’d like to be able to do? Would it be exciting? Would it help your career? If the answer is yes, it’s probably fear your employees are grappling with — and that’s OK. But the key is to recognize that so you can help them move forward.
Step 2 is to actively help them use the power of rationalization as a source of motivation, instead of as a source of avoidance. Perhaps the single most critical thing you can do for employees struggling to step outside their comfort zones is to help them discover a sense of purpose or conviction. Conviction is the feeling, deep down, that what you’re doing – and likely struggling doing- when acting outside your comfort zone is worth it. That the “pain” is worth the “gain.” You have to believe in the purpose of what you’re doing – that what you’re doing is worth it. And so as an executive in charge of helping your employees find a way outside their comfort zone, it’s essential to give them a reason why it is worth the effort. In some cases, it’s simply going to be about personal and professional development. But in other cases, it might be baked into the promotion and reward system of the company. For example, one company I know has a year-long leadership development program whose single purpose is to help employees step outside their comfort zones. And unless you go through the program, you don’t have access to higher-level positions at the firm. So give your employees a reason to make the stretch and you’ll be happy with the results.
Step 3 is practice. It may sound obvious, but practice is one of the most critical tools in a person’s arsenal to integrate a fledging new skill into one’s more permanent bag of tricks. When athletes learn any new skill, such as a new throwing motion or a new way of kicking a soccer ball, they typically practice in less consequential settings first, like in a drill, and then gradually build up to a scrimmage, and then maybe a preseason game . . . and then, ultimately, in a game that really matters. You can take this same analogy and apply it to helping your employees stretch outside their comfort zones. Begin by taking very small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, encourage employees to sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of asking them to immediately speak up in the boardroom (if that’s their particular bugaboo), start by encouraging them to practice up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. The key is to create “just right” practice opportunities so they can hone their skills in a psychologically safe environment, while appreciating that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process.
Finally, the last tip is to practice what you preach. As an executive, you need to demonstrate the importance of acting outside your comfort zone by actually doing it yourself. You need to show courage in trying something new – in being vulnerable. I recently spoke with an executive who did just this – he did a live “rap” in front of hundreds of employees and also gave a speech in French to a French-speaking audience, when his French was not more beyond a 7th grade level. But the point was to be bold and brave and by demonstrating the point himself, he modeled his ambitions for his employees through his own actions.
In the end, your employees are the most critical asset you have – so it’s essential to develop their ability to grow and learn and stretch outside their comfort zones. Use these tips and you’ll be well on your way towards maximizing ROI on this most critical investment.
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