Comfort zones can be a silly thing. To some extent, I think everyone can get stuck “in the zone” every now and then. And if they are lucky, someone or something will come along and push them right out of it.
I’ve been hearing a lot about comfort zones lately and almost all of these conversations have been with women. I know men that appear to have comfort zones as well but maybe they only talk to other men about it. Maybe they never admit to being in that zone.
The comfort zone is that place where you feel like you are in control of your surroundings, you are doing exactly what you think you are qualified to do, and you are hesitant to make a change.
Change can be hard but so beneficial. After speaking at the “Mind the Gap” session at the Council of Science Editors meeting last week, a young woman asked me for advice. Her boss and her boss’s boss really seemed to like her and were giving her more and more responsibilities.
This is an enviable position to be in. To have two advocates looking to move you up the ladder is almost unheard of. The problem is that this very capable young woman didn’t really like the new things she was asked to do. There was lots of negotiating and trying to smooth things over with unhappy people. She was feeling like she was being thrown into the middle of a boxing match.
The woman really liked her job and appreciated the potential her superiors saw in her but she was uncomfortable with some of the new responsibilities, while at the same time a little afraid to tell her boss that she wasn’t really liking the new tasks.
Some people are meant to stay in their comfort zones. They do great work and are extremely dependable. What they lack is a need to advance. For others, it’s more of a paralyzing fear of change.
I asked the woman if she had a desire to move up and she said she did, which is why she was afraid to talk about this new work that was too far outside her comfort zone. This conversation reminded me that we have comfort zones for another reason. Some activities just make us anxious.
I am not comfortable asking people to do stuff for me. This is why I am a terrible fundraiser and conference planner. I am also not very comfortable being around groups of people I don’t know. I recognized this early on and have been pushing myself outside my comfort zone to get used to both of these activities, which are luckily largely voluntary.
But what if my Executive Director saw potential in me to advance to the executive level and offered me a job in charge of philanthropy as a stepping stone on the way? Would I accept that offer? Can I change my comfort zone or accept being outside of it day-in and day-out? I don’t really know.
So back to my new friend at CSE. She was being pushed outside her zone and it was turning a job she loved into one she dreaded. This will not be a good match for her in the end.
My advice to her was to think about what new responsibilities she wanted in the immediate future. Are there skill gaps that she wants to fill? I told her she should talk to her boss about her discomfort with the new tasks and be prepared to propose some things she would like to take on. I know that if I were her boss, I would rather have that conversation than lose someone I thought I was helping.
After CSE, I received a lovely note from a co-worker who spoke on a panel at the meeting. I had encouraged her to get involved in a committee and she was soon asked to participate in the panel. This, she said, was outside of her comfort zone. She did it and she nailed it! Her note thanked me for pushing her out of her comfort zone. I really only think she needed a slight nudge.
Being a pusher doesn’t mean forcing people into uncomfortable places. It doesn’t mean taking a good employee and making them do things they don’t like (we all have to do enough of that already). Being a pusher (or a nudger) means getting to know the person being pushed and starting small.
Being the pusher almost always simply means showing you have faith in someone. Showing them that you think they can do something that they don’t think they can do. With this comes responsibility to see what happens next. Did the pushed accept the challenge knowing you had their back? Did you show up to support them when they exhibited the behaviors outside the zone? Did you ask them how it went? Did you tell them they did a great job? Did you say, “what’s next?”
If you are being pushed, you too have a responsibility to think about your boundaries. Are you being asked to do tasks that raise your anxiety level to a place that makes you super uncomfortable? Or, is this a small nudge? Think about what exactly you are afraid will happen. Is it that bad? Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?
Everyone should really test their comfort zones. If you are a manager or a mentor, think about the comfort zones of your team members. Are there people who should get a nudge? If so, think small. Push them a bit and carefully watch the reaction. Ask them how it felt to step out of their zone.
If you feel like you are in a rut, get pushing! Think about whether you are too comfortable and what might be holding you back. Fear of rejection is a powerful thing. Coming up with a plan for getting to the edge of your zone and deciding when and where to step outside of it, that’s not so hard.
I would love to hear about a time you stepped out of your comfort zone and what it taught you. Share your stories in the comments section.
Note: If you are attending SSP next week and you feel like getting in some practice pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself to stand up at one session and ask a question. I guarantee others in the room will have the same question and will thank you for being the brave one for asking.