Purposeful Discomfort

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.

Brian Tracy

As creators of opportunity, open-door leaders are also providers of purposeful discomfort. Why? Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM, had it right when she said, “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit. We grow, develop, and progress by pursuing opportunities that put us outside our comfort zone. Opportunities create discomfort.

The trick is that you have to provide uncomfortable opportunities that provoke growth, not set people up for failure. As a leader, you have to provide tasks or situations that are enough of a stretch that they motivate people to move outside their comfort zones, but not so far outside that they debilitate performance. While some level of fear
and anxiety is natural, and perhaps even necessary, too much is demoralizing and can cause people to stew with resentment (see the previous chapter).

By nudging people into discomfort, you help activate their courage, which is what they need to face the fear that discomfort provokes. Consider, for example, some of these common uncomfortable work situations and the opportunities they present to demonstrate courage:

• giving a presentation to your boss's boss

• taking a job with demands that eclipse your current skills

• delegating a risky task to a new or untested employee

• enforcing new performance standards on employees who are longer tenured than you

• admitting to a client or customer that you or your company made a big mistake.

It may surprise you that your job as an open-door leader is to make people uncomfortable, but good opportunities create discomfort. When you are asked to lead a group of employees for the very first time, that is an opportunity. It's also uncomfortable. When you are asked to make a new product pitch to the board of directors, that is an opportunity. It is also uncomfortable. When you are slotted to be your boss's successor, that is an opportunity. It's also uncomfortable. If something is uncomfortable, there's a good chance that it presents an opportunity to grow.

Deliver Discomfort in Doses

A large Chicago-based construction company uses purposeful discomfort as a key feature of its leadership-succession program. The bimonthly leadership workshops start by having each of the 25 up-and-coming leaders give a two-minute presentation that is focused on the progress they've made using the leadership concepts they were introduced to during the previous workshops. Keep in mind that the presentations are videotaped and given in front of the company's most senior executives, including the CEO. Getting them out of their comfort zones serves two purposes:

• It holds them accountable to actually implementing the program concepts.

• It forces them to deal with the discomfort that so often comes with giving a presentation.

When you watch the participants' videotapes you can see the arc of their progress. The confidence that these leaders gain in giving presentations during the course of the 18-month program is nothing short of amazing. Early on, many of them are like awkward teenagers, stumbling through their two minutes, hemming and hawing and umming. Plenty of them suffer from an all-out brain freeze, abruptly stopping, not knowing what to say next. But by the last workshop, everyone is able to stand and speak with confidence and poise. They've grown because they did something uncomfortable. As the program progresses, they become more comfortable with discomfort. You have to be able to present confidently if you want people to believe in the direction you set as their leader. So if you're in a leadership-development program with the aim of becoming a more confident and influential leader, you'd better learn how to present. That requires stepping straight into your discomfort zone. And if you're leading the aspiring leaders, your job is to create the opportunity for them to experience this discomfort.

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