What is this comfort zone we hear so much about, and where did it originate? You’ll hear people describe their comfort zones differently, but my clients tend to describe it as an emotional state where things feel familiar—a place where they experience low levels of anxiety and stress. When we’re in our comfort zones, we have minimum uncertainty, scarcity, and vulnerability. We feel in control there; we’re relaxed; and our basic needs have been met.
We know people love their comfort zones, but research informs us that we don’t perform at our optimal level when we dwell there. In fact, anxiety actually improves performance—at least until we reach an ideal level of it. Beyond that, performance deteriorates. In other words, some anxiety will boost performance, but too much anxiety will mask talent. It’s a tricky balance. We won’t improve if we insist on comfort, but we won’t perform well until we confront barriers to that improvement.
For example, recently, the CEO of a large construction company asked me to work with one of his high potentials, Jeremy, who consistently delivered above-average performance. Jeremy didn’t need my help to perform well in his current job, but the CEO wanted to promote him to a far more demanding position where he’d be required to go toe-to-toe with the 800-pound gorilla of the east coast that had steadily been snatching work from their clutches.
After interviewing Jeremy and the people he works for and with, I immediately saw two things. First, Jeremy had all the talent and experience he needed to take the new promotion. Second, he had erected his own barrier to his success. That’s when I helped Jeremy reframe his situation.
Reframing helps us forget long-held assumptions and abandon conventional mindsets, but it does something else, too. It frees us to discard the fear-driven, deficiency mentality that holds us captive in our comfort zones. Unless a situation like Jeremy’s presents itself, we often don’t even realize we’ve established a comfort zone. Until then, we think of our comfort zones as happy places—not states from which we must escape in order to enjoy more success. As Jeremy learned, when we plan our escapes from the tyranny of comfort, we also invite fear into our lives—fears we must understand, address, and overcome. These are some of the typical fears my clients experience:
- Uncertainty about the future
- Indecision, analysis paralysis, and finger pointing
- Fear of being wrong, a constant need for perfection and more information, even about non-critical issues
- Fear of both failure and success
- An exaggerated need for control
- Worry that others will react negatively to our decisions
When people harbor these fears, they frequently experience these consequences:
- The inability to celebrate and deconstruct success, to understand not just that you’ve succeeded but to understand exactly how and why you did
- An emphasis on cutting expenses—layoffs, plant closings, and outsourcing—versus growth
- Tolerating mediocre performers because “we can’t afford superstars”
- Viewing employees as necessary costs, not valued assets
- A reluctance to develop top performers because they may take their new skills to the competition or, worse yet, they may challenge someone’s position in the company
- An inability or unwillingness to learn and bounce back from failures
- Taking low margin work to avoid “leaving money on the table”
- Vacillating when an opportunity presents itself, causing a loss of momentum
- Little investment in improvement
- A tendency to gloss over conflict, even when you know you’re right
- Feeling overwhelmed, not in control, low energy, no joy
To confront our comfort zones, we must first realize we’ve established them. To do that, we must abandon the idea that stress is bad and the lack of it is good. We need to face our fears, realize the confines our comfort zones create, and understand the insidious nature of the tyranny they generate.