Part Two – Implication for Leadership and Management
A basic principle of psychology is that people are hedonistic. We move toward pleasure and away from pain, which is why we like our comfort zones. When we’re given a goal, we look at all aspects of achievement. We look at the skills and abilities necessary to achieve the goal and determine how well we think we will do in any specific area. We ask ourselves, “OK, what will it take to achieve? What might trip me up?”
We break each element down and look specifically for the most challenging aspects, sizing ourselves up to determine if we have the wherewithal to succeed. We develop a perception of how far out of our comfort zone we’ll have to venture to achieve the goal. We do this to protect ourselves from the pain and embarrassment associated with possible failure. Other people may have different perceptions of our capabilities but, to the individual, our self-perception is our reality.
In the comfort zone
As discussed, inside the comfort zone we are comfortable with our skills and abilities. Outside the comfort zone is where we feel we struggle with certain activities that are critical to achieving the desired outcome. For example, while an individual may feel comfortable doing basic presentations, he may be unnerved by technical presentations that require juggling a lot of detail. One-on-one sales presentations may be her forte but presentations to groups of 20 to 50 people may be very uncomfortable. Someone who is excellent at building relationships with existing customers can have a good deal of trouble stepping outside to cold call and sell to new accounts.
If those things are essential to achieving the vision, an individual can spend a lot of time and energy fretting over them and ultimately, depending on the level of his discomfort, drag his feet or freeze up. Even after we lead people out of their comfort zone they often fall back.
You can get people to move out of their comfort zone but the real trick is to keep them out so they can achieve well past the norm. We have an inherent need to keep things in homeostasis – to keep them normal, the same – safe within our comfort zone. How often have you coached followers to do more than they thought they could only to see them slip back to the previous levels of performance? If a person doesn’t believe he is the “type” of person or has the skills to perform at the new level, he will move back to the previous level of performance where he feels he is capable and comfortable. A good example of this is movie stars and professional athletes who don’t believe their “hype.” They fear they will be “found out” or exposed as being a “fake.” They seem to have everything going for them but they self-destruct. It happens in business as well. People who don’t believe they should be capable of performing at the level needed will be haunted by the fear of failure. They become worried they cannot sustain the new level of production needed and do something to move themselves back to their previous level within their comfort zone.
Here’s the implication for leadership and management. When we examine the comfort zone which is more effective? If the problem is followers’ lack of belief in their abilities to perform all aspects needed to achieve, how effective is threatening someone with a performance plan, disciplinary action or loss of a job? When invoked, these often cause the follower to freeze up. When it does work, the results are usually short term. I have often heard people in positions of management say, “when the heat was on and the direct report was placed on a performance plan he did well. Once the plan was lifted, he fell back to previous levels of performance.” The reason intimidation is not often effective is that the problem is a lack of followers’ belief in themselves. Stress only makes it worse. It serves to demonstrate to the followers that they aren’t worthy of the accomplishment.
Lasting change takes leadership. Followers’ beliefs in their abilities need to be changed. It takes constant and continuous selling of followers on their abilities to achieve each individual requirement and move well beyond their comfort zone and stay there.
The purpose of the comfort zone is to protect you by keeping you safe and the same. The problem is no matter how hard you work to stay within the comfort zone, you never stay the same as you will see in Part Three.