The Dangerous Comfort Zone

I like it when things go well, especially in business. Sales are steady and at a level we’re all comfortable with. Certainly they could be better but my employees are content especially after all we’ve been through. We all appreciate getting a break from the full court press for sales we’d been on for the last several years. Quality is satisfactory and productivity good enough to produce positive returns each month.

Maybe you feel the same way I do. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay where we are indefinitely. Business would be easy and we’d finally be able to reap the rewards we’ve worked so hard for. Leadership would certainly become easier. My business friends have warned me not to become too comfortable with my routine. But then they don’t really know my company. We’re different and the relative ease of the pattern we’ve grooved into is certain to keep the returns positive. After all, getting here wasn’t luck. Everyone in the company can point to the hard work and smart decisions that got us to where we are. What I hadn’t realized though, is that in my success, like the opening scene of a Rod Serling movie, we had innocently wandered into the “Comfort Zone”.

The comfort zone is a deceptively dangerous place to be. Wikipedia defines the comfort zone is “a behavioral state within which a person (or organization) operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, and usually without a sense of risk.” It is the container in which we allow our imaginations to wander. Unfortunately for some people and organizations, they live with very small containers.

On the surface it has all the characteristics of what we’ve been in pursuit of for so long. But once inside, it takes over our thinking and we become mired in complacency. That complacency results in stagnation leaving the company vulnerable to a competitive threat or market shift.

Confronting the Problem
Comfort zones are closely tied to a company’s self-image. That could be its perception of how big it can be, how good it is at what it does, what the real threats are or any other aspect of its performance. It’s an image in the mind of the leaders or the employees about the way things are supposed to be. The problem is comfort zones have a strong influence on keeping us the way we are and if you don’t escape the comfort zone you’ve limited your chance of growing out of or beyond your present conditions. If you don’t change that image you’ll just keep reproducing what you have stagnating growth and value in the organization.

Many companies have enormous potential but they have comfort zones of familiarity that have them frozen in time. It’s because part of our human nature is that we won’t let ourselves want something we don’t believe we can create. In order to expand the business, employees will need to stretch and broaden long standing beliefs about what’s possible. Good leadership recognizes that comfort zones are real and take steps to manage them.

Changing the Picture
If we’re going to grow individually and organizationally beyond where we’re presently at we’re going to have to grow our comfort zone. The key to that is changing the internal picture of how far our imagination can stretch and still be relatively anxiety-neutral. It means we’ll have to develop a new set of beliefs about what we’re capable of accomplishing. There are a few steps to help your company grow its comfort zone.

  1. The first step involves visionary goal setting. If you’ve been a local company but have aspirations of being regional, national or even international you have to see it happening before it happens. I’ve seen too many businesses set aspirational goals truly doubtful of their ability to achieve them and prove themselves right. Deliberately decide the next level or comfort zone you want to move into and make it familiar. The degree to which you can visualize yourself at the next level, making the unfamiliar familiar, the greater your chance of success.
  2. Imprint your vision and goals on the organization. You can’t impose change. You can try it but it won’t last. You have to help others change first from the inside. You’ll need employees to visualize themselves into the next level or change that’s coming or they’ll eventually slide back to the old comfort zone. Not everyone may come along. Don’t stop the growth of your company because of the restrictive comfort zones of people who don’t want to grow.
  3. Hire people who believe in the possibility of your vision. Often individuals from organizations who have already accomplished what you want to do will have the efficacy to believe that what you want can be achieved. They speak about it as a forgone conclusion. Their self-confidence can also give rise to confidence in others.

Your comfort zone is a place that feels good but is also a powerful force of resistance to growth and change in any organization. So, take that earned rest and recovery when you need it but keep asking yourself, “What’s next? What more do I want to do?” It is important to keep growing in all aspects of your personal and corporate performance. Continuously setting and affirming clear goals and expanding the size of the comfort zone are the best ways to do it.

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