The Danger of Comfort Zones

The idea of a comfort zone goes back over a hundred years, to the work of two psychologists who found that a steady level of performance was best achieved when a person was in a state of relative comfort. Of course, the opposite side of this discovery is that, to enhance performance, a state of relative anxiety is actually needed. And this is where the disconnect happens for many people – because we do not just automatically prefer states that involve worry or fear.

It is a natural, unconscious human tendency to remain in an anxiety-neutral zone – a place where we feel the fewest risks and demands. Taking on a challenge, trying something new, or tackling a course of action that has an uncertain outcome, are not things most people just fall into. These all begin with choices, because they involve potential risk and anxiety – both of which our brains naturally avoid.

Now, the upside of this is that, with that natural anxiety that comes with being outside our “comfort zone,” our alertness, our reactions, our stress levels, all increase, which can enable us to perform to higher levels. Obviously, stress can easily be pushed to a point where it is no longer helpful and actually detrimental to performance, but the fact is that most people do perform best at their personal level of “optimal anxiety.” Some people, in other words, really do need deadlines and firm expectations.

Deadlines, for one thing, are a way to avoid the “work trap,” which we have all likely fallen into at some point. In this state, we feign business, and make more of small, inconsequential tasks, to remain in our comfort zone. Without the relative discomfort of deadlines or expectations, productivity can take a serious hit. One thing you can do as a coach is to make sure your team members aren’t falling into this trap. Becoming comfortable with the way things are run, with the expectations you’ve always had of them, and the way they’ve always dealt with customers. Changing things up – for instance, tracking new activities on Scoreboard, or setting up different games and goals –  will jar their sense of comfort and get them back to their state of optimal anxiety.

As a coach, you can make sure that you confirmation bias – seeking out only information that agrees with what you already think. You are sure that the way you do sales, the way you have taught your team to pursue leads and close policies, is the way to go. But have you tried out other methods and strategies? Have you only listened to the people or read the information that supports the way you have always run your office? What if you tried researching other ways of doing things – or even just had a good conversation with someone who coaches their team in a completely different way? What is the worst that could happen?

Trying out new things doesn’t have to happen on a large scale – the risks can be very small. Going back to sales, you might instruct your team members on experimenting with different pivots and leading statements. It might be uncomfortable for both you and them to change up word tracks that you’ve always used, but this type of productive discomfort can help you and your team see situations and ideas in a new light. If an experience or idea makes you uncomfortable, that is probably because it is clashing with something that you are already very comfortable with. That is not a bad thing. We all need to revisit things we feel certain about – the anxiety that comes from questioning our ingrained ways of thinking and acting could just prompt some out of the box thought that might be exactly what is needed for a situation.

So maybe today is the day to revisit your basic Scoreboard Buzz set up. Maybe change up the activities you are tracking – thinking back to those 4 Disciplines of Execution. It might be time to try a new type of game, or set up a new competition to challenge your sales people. Don’t let them get too comfortable with where they are and what you expect. Change is not the enemy and experimentation is okay. It is all about finding the optimal level of stress to enable the highest level of performance.

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