Let’s Grow Professional: Away from the comfort zone

LGP-Breakfast at the family pancake house by Tim Regan

The pace of change is constantly increasing, and leaders will need to be more and more agile as time goes on. The old command-and-control habits don’t work when organizations need to transform the way they are needing to now. Mental presence and offering appreciative feedback are skills that today’s leaders are learning to value, but changing old habits triggers reactions that can make you feel like you’re in a foreign country.

Not everyone loves international travel. If the people around you speak a different language, and you aren’t getting results (food! bathroom! take me to my hotel!), it feels too hard. The fear of failure and the desire for comfort send us back home with a commitment never to go “back there” again. For this reason many travel destinations protect Americans from actual international experiences.

Likewise, when we try to change our behavior, the response we get can be jarring. Sometimes things don’t work out as we expect.  I will offer some examples.

(I have a few stories to tell as examples but want to point out first that I encountered these examples during my tenure as an internal consultant for a male-dominated company, so the examples are all men. I did not artificially tinker with gender because I do not know how gender differences would have an impact on the dynamics.)

An unexplained change in behavior can actually be frightening.  

Because mental presence is a skill that benefits from practice anywhere, I encourage professional/leadership clients to practice being fully present for their loved ones.

One client decided to practice being fully present for his wife. He came back and told me that she only talked for a minute before turning silent, white as a sheet. “Are you having an affair?” she accused.

Another man’s wife sat down abruptly and asked him if he’d lost his job.

Sometimes behavior change is seen as insincere.

One client hadn’t had time to practice full presence with any of his family members between getting the assignment and our second meeting, so he decided he would make breakfast for his family on the day of our session. He got up early and started the bacon and pancakes. His wife rose first and stood, frowning and puzzled, in the doorway. Then his middle-school-aged daughter got up, noticed what was happening, rolled her eyes, and tried to walk out with a Pop-tart, but her father stopped her and asked her to have a seat. She was objecting loudly when his youngest, an elementary-school-aged boy came in, saw what was happening, and eagerly sat down to eat.

When the altercation between dad and daughter finally quieted down, with the daughter sitting sullenly in her seat, the boy chimed in cheerily. “I get it! He’s trying to be a real dad.”

Can you imagine? You’re trying to do the right thing and get nothing but flack for it until your one supporter points out just how much you’ve been failing up to this point. Everyone I’ve told that story to reacts as if they’ve just been punched in the gut.

Any business leader could be forgiven for wanting to throw up their hands and give up if this is the kind of result their changed behavior gets.

To change the system, get the system on board and helping

I cannot help but reflect back on what it was like for me, landing in Germany during the summer after my sophomore year of college. The residents of Frankfurt decided quickly that it was easier and faster to speak English with me than it would be teaching and encouraging me to learn German.

The same dynamic often happens when a manager tries to change their behavior for the better at work. I’ll take the example of Clark, who is an amalgam of several of my clients over the last few years.

Clark has managed a team of five employees who have been with him for about a decade. He has always had a militaristic attitude about management: “I tell them what needs to happen and they do it.”

But, he has learned that to move up in the company, which needs him and his team to be more open to change, he will need to gain the ability to influence others instead of just ordering them around. He learns that one way to influence is by offering specific, genuine appreciation. Clark’s coach encourages him to focus on giving appreciative feedback to his crew and then come back ready to talk about that experience.

Later, Clark reports back: “Appreciation doesn’t work. When I told my folks what I appreciated, they laughed! One of them asked me what was wrong. I told them why I was doing it, but they don’t want me to change for them.”

Similar to Clark’s team members, my Germans thought the easiest thing was for them to speak English. Thus, for the month I spent in Frankfurt, I never spoke more than a couple words of German.

Fortunately I spent the next five weeks in a less-sophisticated small town in the countryside. Here, they needed me to step up my game, even though they were willing to help.  I spent many hours shoulder-to-shoulder with these country Germans hunting through a language dictionary. I would string together what I thought might be a sentence, and they would say it properly so I could repeat it back to them.

I could have learned more in Frankfurt if I’d insisted we stay with German and turned down their offer of English. Likewise, Clark isn’t going to learn how to ‘speak influence’ as long as he allows his team to prefer the old language of command-and-control from him.  

Clark will need to turn down their offer and ask them to help him get better at this new skill.

An open-communication approach that resists the old comfort zone not only explains what’s going on but invites support, letting employees know it’s safe to help with the change. It does take longer to get the work done initially, but the process through change and growth (for both leader and team) is much faster.

If Clark uses this approach, he will have to mindfully make it safe for his employees to give him feedback. He’ll probably have to ask them directly for feedback a few times: “I know it’s awkward while I’m learning a new skill. Could you tell me how I’m doing?” If he ever loses his cool in response to their honest feedback, it’s the last he’ll ever get. He will have to practice making it safe. It will be tough until the new skill develops.

It takes courage and a kind of challenging support to stay out of the comfort zone. If you do, you will experience the benefits of your hard work much faster than is possible if you retreat when things get hard. Remind yourself that the new skill will serve your and your team’s ability to transition effectively. Make sure you get enough sleep–you will need it! And when you make it through the change, you and your team will be so much better able to handle the changes that come.

This is the third post in a series that draws inspiration for professional growth from the experience of personal travel. You can read the first post on LinkedIn and WordPress and the second post on LinkedIn and WordPress.


Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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