Am I Stuck in My Comfort Zone?

“This is impossible.” Alice murmured. “Only if you believe it is.” said the Hatter (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Disney 2016)

If people received as much encouragement in their jobs as Alice did when slaying the Jabberwocky, it would be a lot easier for them to move out of their comfort zones. If we as managers gave encouragement to our employees as Alice’s supporters gave her, it would less difficult for us to improve our organizations simply by helping others expand beyond their perceived limitations. Moving out of our comfort zone and helping others move out of theirs, are two essential elements in career development and successful management.

We all have comfort zones, which are directed by embedded and protective instincts. Remaining in our comfort zones removes risks and keeps us from encountering danger. Stepping out of this zone causes us to perceive risk and expose ourselves to unpleasantness. Although some schools of thought believe that remaining in one’s comfort zone is a resistance to change, I believe it goes much further than that. This protective instinct is embedded in our natural self-protection, a pure fight or flight instinct. Our ancestors utilized this instinct for thousands of years to protect themselves from harm when they fought off the dangers of tribes and creatures similar to Alice’s Jabberwocky.

Today we attempt to protect ourselves from harm that may come in the form of rejection, failure, stress and anxiety. Staying within one’s comfort zone allows our brain to avoid perceived harm. Unfortunately this natural protective instinct may hinder career development if we allow ourselves to become enslaved and remain in the comfort zone, preventing us from ever moving ahead.

Not everyone is as brave as Alice and can take giant steps out of their comfort zone. Giant steps, like changing careers, taking a very big and brave business step or making a significant life/business change may be too intimidating.  Therefore beginning to step out of ones comfort zone using smaller steps, can help overcome fears and will allow one to become better at one’s job.

How do you begin to make these small steps out of your comfort zone, steps that will eventually help you slay your own Jabberwocky? Here are my tips:

  1. Understand your comfort zone. Where are you today? What is it that you consciously avoid, what do you do or not do? Which of these things are holding you back from career advancements or changes in your personal life?

Unwillingness to work with certain people, new people or in a team are some typical comport zone signals that may cause problems in the work place. Being cautious about presenting your ideas, being afraid to ask for clarification, direction or advice are other indicators of self-protection. In addition, something as obvious as not speaking out at meetings or not wanting to give presentations in front of groups may reflect your desire to stay within your comfort zone. Through your understanding of what you are not readily willing to do, you can become keenly aware of where and what your comfort zone is. Once identified, you are ready to take the next step.

  1. As important as it is to understand where your comfort zone is, the next step is to begin to understand why. Are you anti-social? Do you have difficulty interacting with new people or dislike groups? Are you afraid of looking incompetent? Is fear, anxiety or failure the driving force and if so of what? Or is it the fear of rejection driving your behavior if so then from whom? Take the time to examine what is preventing you from taking a step out of you comfort zone.
  2. Once you aware of the anxieties and fears that lock you into your comfort zone, ask yourself if they are real. Are the consequences imagined or real, are they only in your head? Is there really a Jabberwocky out there that will bite your head off if you speak in an office meeting or approach your boss? Is there really an entire crowd of people waiting for you to take one small step so they can watch you make a mistake? The answer is no. Imaging bad scenarios and not good ones allows the bad scenarios to drive your behavior. If you want to learn to step out of your comfort zone, you must push the bad scenarios out of your mind. Begin with small-prepared steps that have small consequences since they are barely noticeable. Even if something unpleasant were to happen in a small step, there are not any real Jabberwocky’s in today’s world, you will bounce back.
  3. Beginning with the small step. Moving out of your comfort zone does not mean slaying the Jabberwocky the first time. It means taking a risk, taking a step, but a small one. If you do not like speaking in front of people, start with a small group, maybe like a staff meeting. Do not jump up and begin with presenting a 20-minute report at the next sales meeting to 500 people. If you like working alone but you know you need to work in a team to be successful, pick 1 or 2 people and approach them. Begin small and gradually expand your comfort zone but do not try to do it all at once.
  4. Before you take the first step make preparations since they are the key to success. Think about what you are going to do, think it all the way through and then practice. If you are going to approach a new colleague to work on a project with you, then prepare what you will say in advance. If you are presenting to a group, run through the presentation prior to the event. Would you go to a job interview unprepared? I do not think so, so do not anything unprepared.  Gain knowledge about the atmosphere or culture around you since this may help you to evaluate how and what to change by calculating what needs to be done. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, even taking a small step is like jumping into ice-cold water, no likes to do it but when we have to, it is less shocking when we are prepared.
  5. Examining our motives does not necessarily mean involving ourselves in an entire psychological evaluation and putting ourselves on the coach. It is instead is an attempt to understand why we have the feelings we do. Our unwillingness to step out of our comfort zones is often caused by external messages we currently or previously received. How many times have we all heard, “That’s not realistic,” or “He/she will never make it?” Negative messages can remain with us for a long time and become a part of our subconscious behavior.

Are there negative messages coming from your current environment that influences you? Do you get anxious from messages or signals received from friends or management? Try to asses the external factors that are augmenting your fears and anxieties, and then try to put them into prospective. These external forces are not Jabberwockies, they are only people. Beware of their influence on you.

Using my own story, if I never stepped out of my comfort zone I would not be where I am today. I remember my young years as a dreamer, how I was prisoner of the limitations caused by external factors, but I never let those limitations stop my dreams. In my young adult years I approached things pretty much the same way Alice approached the Jabberwocky. I also acquired a few bites and bruises along the way. In my climb up the career ladder, I often approached situations in the same fashion as Alice. Later I became aware of the importance that stepping out of my comfort zone played in acquiring a good career.

Every day you need to step out of your comfort zone, even if it is only a small step. Try to do this as often as possible because attempting too large a step may set you up for failure or result in you getting pushed around. It is better to practice getting out of your comfort zone step by step; develop your career a little at a time. This is better than being pushed and becoming paralyzed.  These small steps will make a difference in how you approach your job, how you enjoy it and what influences the fulfillment you receive.

Finally, these last comments are directed at two particular groups of people; Women and Managers.

Women

Women often find it more difficult to step out of their comfort zones than men. This could be an over developed instinct to protect where they are and the consequences their actions may have on others. I have observed many women struggling with this dilemma throughout my own career. The advice I have for them is to focus on one-self and not the consequences. Women generally sacrifice a great deal of their happiness for their families, friends and colleagues, which is why I would encourage them to focus on themselves. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone may even have more positive influences on oneself as well as those around you.

Managers

Years ago companies helped people step out of their comfort zones through training, mentoring and development programs. Today these things still exist but are more focused on the deliverables for the company as opposed to the development of the people. What companies forget is that the development of the people will improve the deliverables of the company. I personally try to push my employees out of their comfort zones without scaring them. Job rotations, ensuring everyone does presentations (even short ones), scheduling people to work on projects with colleagues (even when they do not get along) are all ways to help employees grow by moving them out of their comfort zones.  This helps them grow and provides me with a stronger organization. Occasionally you will have an employee that refused to move out of their comfort zone but generally these employees cannot be developed anyways and their contribution to the team is limited.