An HR leader decides to create a remote global hiring strategy, even though they’ve only ever hired locally and in-person. An introverted and crowd-shy executive decides to accept an invitation to deliver a keynote presentation in front of a large audience. An employee is laid off and pivots to a career in independent consulting, even though they’ve come to rely on their steady income.

What do these three scenarios have in common? They are all examples of people stretching out of their comfort zone.

What is your comfort zone?

Your comfort zone is a space where you operate out of routine, familiarity, and with limited risk of failure. While staying in the comfort zone may feel safe and easy, staying there too long holds us back from learning and developing.

Every day, we’re presented with events that introduce challenge and complexity into our lives. In these critical moments, we tend to lean towards one of the following two directions:

A. Remain steady and in the comfort zone. Continue as you always have. Avoid inner tension and reduce anxiety.
B. Lean into the difficult or unknown. Challenge yourself. Accept that some tension and anxiety will arise when you try something new.

Keeping to the comfort zone doesn’t mean you’re not working hard. Rather, it means you’re sticking to work that feels familiar. For some leaders, this might look like:

  • Continuing to work after hours because you’re not comfortable delegating tasks
  • Not throwing your name in the hat for a promotion because you’re worried you don’t meet all the criteria
  • Avoiding new technology that will help automate your work because you’re nervous about learning a new process

Growth happens when you challenge yourself and accept that when you enter uncharted territory, you might not get it right the first time.

We know growth is good for us. But why does it feel so hard?

In 2014, CEO Satya Nadella began weaving growth into Microsoft’s DNA. Seeing how fixed, siloed, and stuck the culture was, he sought to embed the concept of growth and learning into every aspect of Microsoft’s business.

Initiatives to achieve this included:

The result for Microsoft? This shift of culture from “know it all” to “learn it all” has contributed to the company’s stock price increasing by 5x, and market capitalization passing a trillion dollars. 

Despite knowing how growth can supercharge your leadership and business, it can still feel difficult at the individual level.

As humans, we have many internal needs that can be pitted against one another. Our desire for status and self-fulfilment may drive us towards achievement and challenge. At the same time, our need for safety may lead us to behave in a way that protects our vulnerabilities.

It’s this same tension that keeps us balanced and motivated when completing a task. When a task feels too easy, we experience boredom. When it’s challenging beyond our perceived capabilities, we feel stressed and panicked. When a task presents the right amount of tension and anxiety, we move into growth and our resilience is strengthened.

To help ease the anxiety that goes hand in hand with taking on new challenges, it’s important we lean into our growth mindset. By focusing on what we might learn by exposing ourselves to potential failures, we can start to reduce our fears.

Leaning into the growth zone

So how do we start letting go of our desires for comfort in exchange for growth? Here are 4 suggestions:

1. Weigh the cost of not making a change: The fixed mindset might focus on risk and the possibility for failure. The growth mindset asks, what’s the risk and opportunity cost of not trying?

Imagine your employees want to implement a 4-day work week, but you as their leader were not yet comfortable allowing this. The risk of not adopting this change could be:

  • A loss in talent attraction, retention, and diversity
  • Burned out employees who eventually leave
  • Increased efforts required for recruitment

At a more personal level, reflect on a time you’ve remained in a less than ideal work situation because you were afraid to leave. The opportunity cost of this decision could include:

If you’re delaying or procrastinating on trying something unfamiliar because you’re worried about the risk, remember that inaction is not always risk free! You may lose out on something valuable by remaining in your comfort zone.

2. Identify and challenge what keeps you from growth: Looking inwards and practising self-awareness can be a great way to discover blind spots that hold you back from growth. To discover yours:

  • Reflect on a goal or project you’ve delayed pursuing
  • List out every reason for delaying
  • Run through each reason and ask yourself, is this reason real, imagined, or an excuse?
  • Reframe your worries around these reasons with a more growth oriented perspective

We must control our self-limiting beliefs if we are to bet on ourselves enough to step out of our comfort zone.

This kind of self-reflection can also help improve your leadership ability.

According to McKinsey, learning to support yourself and building self-awareness is a key skill for keeping a team stable and helping a business recover after a crisis.

3. Create goals that are learning-based: Corporate goal frameworks like OKRs or KPIs lean on rigid metrics to define success. While these frameworks are needed to manage projects, they can overlook valuable and long term metrics, such as learning and discovery. 

An example of learning-based frameworks are stretch goals which can be set for both you and your team. Another example is intentionally leaving time for your employees to experiment, like Google does with their 20% project.

Gallup finds that when organisations prioritise creating a learning culture, they “experience 11% greater profitability and are twice as likely to retain their employees”.

If your goals include curiosity and creativity, learning will become part of your regular practice, and your teams will reap the benefits.

4. Take microsteps: Everytime we demonstrate a new behaviour, we activate a new neural pathway. The more we repeat this new behaviour, the stronger the connection in the brain becomes, until you eventually create a habit.

Think about a stretch goal that will require you to leave your comfort zone. Now, break it down into microsteps; which is taking your larger goal and breaking it down into a “micro” version.

For example, you may wish to gain better control of your emotions at work. If meditating for 10 minutes straight seems too challenging of a start, begin with 1 minute a day.

Repeat this daily for a month, and see how much easier it becomes. As you progress through your month, you can take incremental steps to increase the time, until you reach your 10 minutes.

If you start small but persist and build a habit up gradually, growth will feel like less of a leap, and more of a steady progression.

While it may seem unnatural, we challenge you to enjoy the feeling of being a little bit uncomfortable. Your attitude towards problems and how you approach uncertainty will make all the difference in how successfully and creatively you can navigate the world’s complexities.

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