Leading Away From Comfort

Updated July 2022

It may surprise you that your job as a leader is to make people uncomfortable. Why? Because people learn, develop, and progress in a zone of discomfort, not comfort.

It is in the pursuit of challenges that are hard, scary, and uncomfortable that people discover their worth, and convert potential into actual skills.

Most good career opportunities, for example, are – at least on some level – uncomfortable and cause anxiety. Leading a group of employees for the very first time is an opportunity. It’s also uncomfortable. When you are asked to make a new product pitch to the board of directors, it is an opportunity. It is also uncomfortable. When you are slotted to be your boss’s successor, it is an opportunity. It’s also uncomfortable. If something is uncomfortable, there’s a good chance that it is also an opportunity for personal growth and professional advancement.

Ginny Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, says, “Growth and comfort don’t coexist.” Over the course of her career she purposefully sought out work roles where, for a little while, she was in over her head. Doing so ensured that she’d have to quickly learn new skills to stay above water. She attributes much of her success – she is, after all, the first female CEO of the storied company – to her willingness to embrace discomfort.

The Two Essentials

As a leader, there are two essentials relative to discomfort. First, you have to step into your own discomfort zone. This is the best way to model the importance of doing so to others. Joe Forehand, the former CEO of Accenture, calls this leadership by “sweaty palms.” You have to occasionally do things that are so challenging that they ignite the physiological responses that both fear and excitement provoke (e.g., sweaty palms, stomach butterflies, racing heartbeat, etc.).

The second essential is to nudge people into their discomfort zone so that they stretch their skills and capabilities. The idea isn’t to get people to do wildly uncomfortable things, just willfully uncomfortable things. When employees are pushed too far into discomfort, they may get paralyzed with fear, their performance will suffer, and they’ll resent you. They need to know that you’re asking them to do uncomfortable things to promote their growth and career advancement.

In order for this to work, you need to know your employees’ goals, aspirations, and areas for growth, and then provide uncomfortable opportunities to promote those aims. For example, if you’ve got a painfully introverted worker who also aspires to be a leader, you might have that person lead the weekly status meeting in your absence. Conversely, if you’ve got an employee who’s extraverted to a fault, and oblivious about how everyone else perceives him or her, you might have that person be the note taker at the same meeting, instructing the überextravert not to talk, only to listen and scribe. The opportunities you provide as a leader should be outside of those areas where people already feel comfortably skilled.

This post originally ran at the Human Capital Institute. It is reused with permission.

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