If you are like most individuals, you revel in the ease and relaxation that comes with feeling comfortable at work. Having confidence in your ability to perform a job well—with poise, proficiency, and efficiency—provides feelings of satisfaction and security. What’s more, stress remains at a minimum when you are safely ensconced inside your comfort zone.
Despite these undeniable benefits, there’s also a downside to operating within the constraints of comfort—regardless of the real or perceived environmental controls that mindset affords. Lingering in a psychological state of contentment not only can—but most likely will—inhibit your ability to grow and realize your full potential, both as a business professional and organizationally.
The true nature of business is always evolving and demands flexibility and adaptability to achieve and sustain success in a global marketplace. No type of organization or industry is immune to change, which can present with extreme and unwelcome regularity. Although fluidity ushers in the unforeseen that, in turn, can prompt fear and anxiety, there are a myriad of reasons to embrace the associated discomfort.
Even if the unease you are feeling as a business leader is spurred by something other than an unsolicited or unexpected shift, the upside is its potential to advance your leadership prowess. Sure, stepping outside your comfort zone and facing a challenge can be inherently onerous—even terrifying—but with it comes the promise of leveraging untapped potential.
Stress spurs success
Whether you take the step on your own or find yourself pushed outside your comfort zone, professional growth inevitably follows. One study by the University of California, Berkeley found that performance is actually enhanced as stress increases. The research revealed that some amounts of acute, short-lived, not chronic, stress “primes the brain for improved performance” and can “push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.” Read: Stress can prompt the mind to adapt and better rise to a challenge so as to overcome achievement-hindering obstacles.
Successful leaders know this to be true, as they regularly thrust themselves outside their comfort zones to increase their situational performance, enhance their leadership ability, and boost self-confidence. Fresh challenges are an extreme source of motivation. They get the proverbial juices flowing and tap into foundational characteristics such as self-reliance and optimism.
Relative to said juices, corporate anthropologist Andi Simon, PhD, founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants, says, “If you are doing something new, you are exploring something that others are hiding from.” She says that to maximize performance, one must “create anxiety—a space where stress levels are higher than normal.” Alan Henry of Lifehacker calls this “optimal anxiety,” just outside of our comfort zone.
Author Caroline Webb also points out physiological effects on the body, noting that,
“When we face a challenge, our brain increases the level of adrenaline and noradrenaline in order to sharpen our motivation and focus. But if the challenge starts to seem beyond our control, those same neurochemicals rise to ‘fight or flight’ levels, making us feel stressed and panicky. So, there’s a fine line between being ready for action and freaking out. And a lot depends on our mindset, because research has found that people perform better under pressure if they tell themselves, ‘Aha! That’s my brain getting me ready to shine.'”
Comfort zones conceal
Stepping outside your comfort zone is indubitably awkward, but you must forge ahead. It is there, within the angst, that you will find new means of leadership proficiency. Until your comfort zone is challenged and tested in new ways, you will never fully discover your untapped and unforeseen potential.
Of course, it cannot be expected that you will perform to perfection as you traverse outside of your safety zone. When you are in unfamiliar territory rife with unpracticed and unproven terrain, those distressing missteps or stumbles will serve you by furthering your knowledge and aptitude. For every uneasy moment, your hidden leadership potential is rising closer to the surface, where it can ultimately be mastered to great effect.
Toward this end, Ben Aston, founder of TheDigitalProjectManager.com, cites research supporting the notion that stability impedes growth potential. “A study from Yale’s neuroscience team found that uncertainty is the trigger switch for your brain to learn quickly,” he says. “This means that unstable environments, while stressful, are essential for your brain to reach its full potential in the shortest span of time possible. Stagnation in the comfort zone inhibits you from achieving your best self.”
Is achieving one’s “best self” inexorably tied to overcoming distress or hardship? Drawing on William Arthur Ward’s famed quote that “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records,” FASTSIGNS International’s CEO, Catherine Monson, asserts that the strongest leaders did not become great by staying in their comfort zone.
“People deal with challenges differently, but the key is to rise above,” she says. “Resiliency and stress are like muscles—the more we work them, the stronger they will be. When you leave your comfort zone, you test your resiliency and stress boundaries. The more often you do it, the better you’re able to handle the challenges that come with running a business.”
“Pressure makes diamonds,” says Kent Yoshimura, cofounder and CEO of Neuro.
“In times of unease, you need to believe that pressure is going to force your business to thrive. Stepping outside your comfort zone becomes a little bit easier when you couple perseverance with optimism. Every business encounters hurdles—some are small, like agreeing on a tagline; others astronomical, like figuring out how to pivot your offering during a global pandemic—but getting over each hurdle makes every future hurdle easier to overcome. Don’t fear the unease—you’ll come out stronger on the other side.”
If you’ve ever enjoyed a beach vacation, you likely know that swimming amid the tide can be demanding, but worthwhile for optimum fitness. Swimming against a tide is far more difficult and sometimes scary, though wholly required in order to safely reach the shore and survive. Treading water, on the other hand, is safe and easy, keeping you afloat and alive but accomplishing little in the way of health benefits—or sufficiently navigating you out of a dangerous situation. Staying in your comfort zone for lengthy periods of time is similar. It’s safe and easy, but with less benefit than could otherwise be realized. Or, perhaps your downfall altogether. At best, it is opportunity loss. As you contentedly tread in your safe place, you are not getting better, learning, developing, or otherwise evolving in your career.
While uncomfortable, bravely stepping outside your comfort zone builds resilience and better equips you to more confidently approach—if not embrace—those anxiety-inducing situations that lie ahead. Moreover, problem-prompted unease can usher in profound creativity and innovation. A fervent quest for resolution can promote the kind of open-mindedness that facilitates breakthrough ideation.
This sureness and imaginativeness can even be contagious. As your comfort zone expands and penchant for risk-taking strengthens, you may notice its ripple effect around you as your team finds the fortitude to step outside of their own respective comfort zones, resulting in the kind of organizational ingenuity and out-of-the-box efforts that can prove revolutionary.
“Complacency leads to stagnation,” warns James Brown, CEO of Smart Communications. “The best way to combat this is to constantly be willing to push ourselves, our businesses, and our colleagues to explore the unfamiliar. Truly groundbreaking ideas rarely come from status-quo thinking. Embracing, rather than fearing, the unknown forces us to actively think creatively, instead of simply letting creativity come to us, and this leads to new perspectives.”
Thwarting complacency is also best when approached comprehensively. “If we want to be one of the world’s most innovative companies, we must innovate with our products, our process, and our strategy,” says Jim Huether, CEO of Hyperice. “The best companies in the world face adverse environments head-on and come out the other side stronger, more connected, and more diversified.” He contends that “good” leaders will demonstrate that taking on new challenges is part of progress, but that “great leaders will foster an environment and culture where taking challenges head-on is encouraged, even if at risk of failure.”
Willingly and wantonly forsaking your comfort zone is a unique and highly personal journey. Pushing past your normal limits can be rife with feelings of dread, insecurity, and regret, causing you to second-guess what you are capable of. Perhaps worse than that is never taking that leap of faith to push past those self-imposed limits and, similarly, never establishing what you’re truly capable of or experiencing the bounty that accompanies. As the saying goes, “If you don’t risk anything, you risk more.”
Amid the current climate of societal upheaval, Steve Waters, founder and CEO of CONTRACE Public Health Corps, suggests wholly embracing a state of unease. “Discomfort should be your default,” he points out. “If you’re not uncomfortable, you are not likely to be making significant progress. All of the tasks and actions that make you pause, that make you doubt yourself—make those your priority. Push the actions that drive you out of your comfort zone to the forefront every day, and you are more likely to find greater success.”
Once you embrace the unnervingly unfamiliar, you open yourself up to the possibility of accomplishing more than you ever dreamed possible. Indeed, the greatest upside of unease is its potential to be a profound and positive leadership growth moment that propels both your business and personal success.
Merilee Kern, MBA, is an internationally regarded brand analyst, strategist, and futurist who serves as chief strategy officer for the Ascendant Group, an industry-leading CEO and personal branding agency. She is a member of the Forbes Business Council.