Set the Heat Outside the ZoneComfort 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.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.


9 Thoughts on "A Shove or a Nudge: Moving People Outside of Their Comfort Zone"

In reading this, I’m struck by a comment made by someone who knows Elon Musk. Musk apparently has the capability to be able to re frame failure as NOT failure. He doesn’t worry about it as a concept. In thinking about comfort zones, i wonder for those reading this, whether fear of failing, lies at the root of the desire to stay in the comfort zone. I further wonder whether this is something that women struggle with more than men. I don’t know.

Speaking personally, I have given many of my teams over the years, the ‘aircover’ to get out of the zone. Some loved it. I think in organisations that have a mission ethic, and possibly a low turnover rate, change to the environment, whether personal or wider cross the business, can be the most terrifying thing of all. And sometimes people can’t quite believe that it’s really true, that they are being given the go ahead to step up and step out. For me, I’ve observed this a number of times in Agile transformation – where teams have taken quite some months to come to terms with the freedom (and the responsibility) to better organise and take responsibility for the work that they do.

Thanks for this Angela, really got me thinking!

Thanks David. Fear of failure is certainly a big component and the other, I think, is lack of confidence. I would venture to guess that men suffer more of the fear of failure and women more of the lack of confidence. In the panel at CSE, Charlie Rapple reported that she had never been asked for a raise by a woman. We spent a good deal of time talking about the need to mentor women into being leaders in order to ensure that there were more women at the top. Stepping out of comfort zones is important training for that.

What about self-nudging? Instead of having others nudge you to get out of your comfort zone, perhaps there are times when you need to nudge yourself. For most people, moving up in an organization entails increasing responsibility for more aspects of the business and ultimately, when you reach the top rung you are responsible for everything. How many people reach that level without feeling uncomfortable about some aspects of the job at that level? As director of a university press I recognized that i was better at some things than others. Personnel management was never my favorite activity, but nevertheless a vital responsibility, so being aware of my own shortcomings in that area, I hired some at the assistant director level who were very strong in that area. Remember the Peter Principle: managers rise to the level of their incompetence?

Self-nudging is very important but requires a self-awareness that may not exist. I never likes public speaking so I started asking questions at the end of sessions at conferences. It was a relatively safe way to stand up in front of 50-100 people, state your name, and ask a question. Not too threatening but it gets easier with practice. Now I do a lot of public speaking or even speaking to large groups like editorial boards. If nerves kick in I remember the sign on my desk that says “Fake it til you make it.” Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the confidence and other times someone else needs to give it to you.

Moving up in position should come with a little discomfort, otherwise it wouldn’t be very challenging. Building a strong team of people with talents that make up for your shortcomings is vital.

Great post, thanks, Angela! I remember the first time I asked a question at a conference, and shaking as I took the microphone. And then sort of being amazed that nothing that momentous happened – I asked a question, it was answered, the discussion moved on. As you say, you get more confident every time. I was still nervous recently giving my first “big” conference talk (>500 people) but ultimately it’s all about being prepared. From writing your question down so that you can be comfortable it’s going to come out right, to practising your talk 10 times so you’re really comfortable with the material and the timings. There are always methods that can make the new zone more comfortable – and as you say, there are lots of people around who can help with that too; you’re also right that it takes a bit of self-awareness or analysis to figure out exactly what you want from them and how to ask for it.

Some people thrive on pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone…

Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Satchel Paige

>Are there people who should get a nudge? If so, think small.

Determining the degree of “nudge” can be very difficult. It would be a great challenge if a manager or mentor do it through a step-up training plan for their members because they can see the reactions, discuss and adjust the tasks if needed. On the other hand, for many teams fallen into a situation of unavoidable change (e.g. cost-cut for business continuity), new responsibilities that fell on each member may not be small but super uncomfortable. But due to the situation, the adjustment can hardly be done so what we need to do is thinking about how to maintain members’ motivations so the team will not lose a great member.

Reading Angela’s mention on the experience of public speaking makes me remember that when I was academia, I was uncomfortable to ask a question in seminar or symposium because of the ‘Fear of fool’. I was afraid that people may think my opinion is not the point or bad question. But now I realized that leaving my reply like this, or raising my hand at a meeting gives me more feedback and comfort.

Thank you Angela for a good post. Maybe my comments here came out from my head that is now stuck in a comfort zone.

You are correct that sometimes we are thrust out of our comfort zone in less than ideal ways. In those cases, adjustment can be difficult and a manager may in fact lose someone who no longer likes what they are doing. That said, there is also an opportunity to see someone shine–this is especially rewarding when it happens with someone you least expected!

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