How can individuals and teams reach their potential by learning to step outside their personal and cultural comfort zones? We have asked Andy Molinsky, Professor of International Management and Organisational Behaviour at Brandeis University’s International Business School and author of Global Dexterity and Reach.
When it comes to stepping out of one’s comfort zone, Andy Molinsky is the expert we need. With his best-selling book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence, Andy Molinsky not only provides inspiring examples of people who dared to step out of their comfort zones, but he also demonstrates anyone can do it.
As individuals, some of us are relatively risk-aversive when others are looking for that kick of adrenaline. But what about our aversion to discomfort?
Andy Molinskyhas kindly agreed to give us a few hints on how each and every one of us, and companies and teams as well, can embrace stepping out of the comfort zone.
What is the comfort zone, exactly?
But, first of all, how can we define someone’s comfort zone? Or, in other words, how do people know they are trespassing the limit between what feels familiar and mastered, and the rather unknown?
As Andy Molinsky explained to us: “Comfort zones are a metaphor. Some people describe getting out of their comfort zones with metaphors such as walking a tightrope, jumping in a cold pool, or wearing shoes that are not comfortable for you. The comfort zone describes a threshold of anxiety. Under this threshold, you’re in your comfort zone, but if you feel anxious about doing something, then you’re outside of it. It’s quite the same for companies and teams: when they engage with something outside their regular, typical activities, it will generate uncertainty, which is associated with anxiety.”
Comfort zones are a metaphor. Some people describe getting out of their comfort zone with metaphors such as walking a tightrope, jumping in a cold pool, or wearing shoes that are not comfortable for you.
For every individual, however, there may be a few different stages or “three buckets” of experiences that either find us at ease or literally terrified, as Andy Molinsky describes: “When inside of your comfort zone, you will feel low levels of anxiety, and benefit from high competences and a certain level of mastery. In the second bucket, you will find your ‘stretch and learning zone’: levels of anxiety will be higher and you will have less mastery of the elements. Then comes the third bucket or zone: the terror one. In this zone, it will take you way more time to get acquainted with the experiences within. Levels of anxiety will be high, and you will feel very far from your natural level of self-efficacy. It will not be a linear process to bring these experiences from the terror zone to the comfort zone. You will need to take very small steps to lower your level of anxiety.”
How to stretch your comfort zone
Now that we have a better idea of the emotion behind the concept of the comfort zone, we may wonder what influences our respective thresholds. What part do culture, education and our environment play in our aversion to certain experiences?
And, more specifically, can we work on widening our own comfort zones? For Andy Molinsky, our different cultures, as well as our environments as children and as adults, play a role in our sense of comfort or discomfort.
The good news is that there are ways to push our limits further: “What I’ve learned from working with companies and various people is that you can learn and use specific tools and strategies to successfully step out of your comfort zone. Part of the problem with things inside of the ‘stretch zone’ is that we tend to avoid these things (this is relevant for companies as much as for individuals). The problem with avoidance is that it provides relief, but it does not allow us to learn from new experiences. Learning is the catalyst for taking something outside your comfort zone and becoming more comfortable, competent and confident about it.”
And, according to Andy Molinsky, being able to embrace a challenging situation instead of trying to avoid it at all costs provides two great benefits: “You usually learn two things when you step out of your comfort zone: first, that the thing you feared was not as fearful as you thought. And then you learn something about yourself: that, most likely, you’re better at this than you envisioned. This is because when thinking about a stressful situation, emotions often make us think of worst-case scenarios that aren’t likely to happen.”
You usually learn two things when you step out of your comfort zone: first, that the thing you feared was not as fearful as you thought. And then you learn something about yourself: that, most likely, you’re better at this than you envisioned.
Two drivers for stepping out of your comfort zone: conviction and a good attitude towards failure
Since stepping out of one’s comfort zone can feel awkward, we may wonder what pushes people to go beyond the “C-zone” in the first place. And, luckily, individuals are not only fearful or risk-aversive, but they also tend to have causes they cherish.
“The action you’re about to take outside your comfort has to be meaningful for you. If you feel like you want to contribute to something, you’re likely to do it even if it does not feel good at first. Let’s imagine you want to raise money for a cause, for example, but you feel extremely shy about asking people for money. Because this is meaningful for you, you will push your barrier and just do it. However, you might also want to set yourself up for success by taking small steps. If you’re afraid of speaking in public, don’t sign up for a Ted Talk just yet. It is everyday, small acts of courage that matter most,” says Andy Molinsky.
And just as exploring outside our natural boundaries can be rewarding for us as individuals, it also is for companies willing to put in the work.
“For a company, having a work culture that is supportive is extremely important for people and teams to take initiative. There has to be a sense of psychological safety for employees. This means that people who dare to take action should not be punished for their mistakes. Vulnerability is part of the learning process. Another important thing is about the storytelling adopted inside a company. Some beliefs can either encourage people to step out of their comfort zone or stay sheltered in it.”
For a company, having a work culture that is supportive is extremely important for people and teams to take initiative. There has to be a sense of psychological safety for employees. This means that people who dare to take action should not be punished for their mistakes.
And if you’re still hesitating about whether to take that one action that has had you feeling anxious for some time, remember that even experts on the subject have sometimes had to confront their fears.
“I’ve had to step out of my own comfort zone many times throughout my career. For example, I struggled with impostor syndrome when I started teaching. I was very uncomfortable speaking in front of a class of MBA students at the time. I worked on that aspect of myself and am very glad I did because it opened so many doors. My career would not be this fulfilling if I had not pushed through this discomfort,” concludes Andy Molinsky.