To begin, what is your Comfort Zone?
Alasdair White, a British management theorist, consultant and university lecturer specialising in performance management, managing people and leadership, suggests the following:
‘The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.’
White further suggests:
‘All performance will initially trend towards a steady state, particularly after a period of performance uplift, and that steady state will then develop a downward curve leading to a significant performance decline.’
This means that maintaining a steady increase in optimal performance requires a steady and measured level of anxiety and stress – too much could result in burnout, and too little drives laziness.
So, if you’re feeling at ease with your work environment, believe you are in control of your situation and are experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress, then you are probably in your comfort zone. In this state, you are in a place where you are operating at a familiar and predictable level of performance and you feel good, comfortable and secure.
However, your actual situation may be far more concerning. In your comfort zone, you unwittingly discontinue learning, you cease developing and improving your skills and you stop growing. In reality, your relative performance is in decline, your individual competitive advantage is rapidly disappearing and your peers are leaving you behind. If you don’t recognise this and take action you may never catch up.
Consequently, you are exposing yourself to the risk that your skills, knowledge and experience become obsolete and your career, as you know it, comes to an abrupt end. History is littered with occupations being made redundant either by fierce competition, the onslaught of innovation and technology. We are in the midst 4th Industrial Revolution and along with the threat from the AI Superpowers, we are now experiencing inescapable disruption in the workplace on a scale never before imagined.
Your greatest asset to avoid the dangers of the comfort zone is your foresight of emerging trends that could affect you, your awareness of what is already happening around you and your commitment to lifelong learning and continuous improvement. In fact, the speed at which you anticipate change, the speed of acquiring new knowledge and your ability to transform it into positive action is your single most important individual competitive advantage.
Mastering your foresight, awareness and anticipation to inform new thinking, strengthen existing skills and master new ones is the key to escaping your comfort zone, optimising your contribution and powering your long-term growth.
This is transformational change.
Of transformational change, Peter Michael Senge, an American systems scientist and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-faculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute and the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning wrote the following:
‘Virtually all natural systems, from ecosystems to animals to organisations, have intrinsically optimal rates of growth. The optimal rate is far less than the fastest possible growth.
When growth becomes excessive – as it does for example in cancer – the system itself will seek to compensate by slowing down; perhaps putting the organisation’s survival at risk in the process.’
This leads to the conclusion that when you focus on progressive marginal gains and continuously accumulate small wins, you power momentum, generate greater energy and nudge yourself forward into a new normal and onward to your long-term growth.
An analogy for this is the process of weight training and muscle building:
- If the weight is too light, your muscles will eventually weaken (i.e. laziness).
- If the weight is too heavy, you will probably cause injury (i.e. burnout).
- If the weight is slightly above your normal, your muscles will adapt to the new stimulus and you will take a small step forward to a new normal (i.e. the Zone of Long-Term Growth).
The key to optimising sustainable improvement and long-term growth is controlling the continuous effort required to acquire and apply new thinking and new learning. Too much effort and you risk burnout and too little, too infrequently and you face laziness.
A further analogy is the continuous effort required in riding a bicycle – you have to keep peddling to move forward. You have to keep going with progressive marginal gains and accumulated in order to optimise the benefits of being in your Zone of Long-Term Growth.
Think of your Zone of Long-term Growth as the place where you are at your most confident, where you have belief in yourself and your ability. It’s the place where you trust in the decisions and choices you make and the actions that follow.
Below are 6 steps to escape your Comfort Zone and energise your Zone of Long-term Growth by changing your thinking and behaviour:
- Manage your career as a tangible strategic mission based with a clear ambition, smart goals and actionable objectives.
- Commit to lifetime learning and sustainable skills development.
- Connect with people you can learn from and who radiate the energy you can tap into to help increase your knowledge and raise your own energy levels.
- Take measured short term risks that stretch you beyond your current situation and use the experience as a valuable learning opportunity.
- Imagine in 12 months from now, for whatever reason, you are looking for a new role and you are as equally qualified as all the other candidates – over the next 12 months what will be your single, most significant, additional contribution or achievement to your current organisation that will set you apart from the rest.
- Get a professional leadership coach – someone you can trust to support, encourage and challenge you.
As Bill Gates says: ‘Everyone needs a coach’