Create Safe Discomfort

Getting people to do purposefully uncomfortable things is easier if you also create a safe environment for them. They have to know that you have their back, that the discomfort won't be permanent, and that it's truly purposeful. Otherwise, they'll think that you're a mad scientist and they're guinea pigs in some diabolical experiment. For example, before the high-potential leaders started giving the two-minute presentations, the CEO explained how presenting was connected to the concept of leadership, that it was fully expected that they'd make lots of mistakes, and that they should seek progress, not perfection. The CEO, whom everyone admired for being a great communicator, also let people know that he started out as a terrible public speaker but forced himself to improve by taking advantage of every opportunity he could find to speak publicly.

Some semblance of psychological safety is important. The idea is not to get people to do wildly uncomfortable
things, just willfully uncomfortable things. They need to know that you're asking them to do uncomfortable things to promote their growth and career advancement. To make this work, you need to know your employees' goals, aspirations, and areas for growth, and then provide uncomfortable opportunities that promote those aims. For example, if you've got a painfully introverted worker who also aspires to be a leader, you might have that person lead the weekly status meeting in your absence. Conversely, if you've got an employee who's extraverted to the point of being offensive or oblivious about how everyone else perceives him, you might have him be the note taker at the same meeting, instructing the über-extravert not to talk, only to listen and scribe. The opportunities you provide as a leader should be outside those areas where people already feel comfortably skilled.

Role Model: Seek Discomfort Yourself

People will also be much more willing to move toward discomfort if they see you doing uncomfortable things too. When asked to comment on how risk taking had influenced his career, the division president of a large communications company put it this way: “Throughout my career, I've always been willing to take jobs that were outside my skill set. Some people think that's crazy, but I'm telling you that I wouldn't be sitting here as president if I had done it any other way. It's dangerous to be too safe. Look, even today I'm outside my comfort zone. I'm an engineer, but
I'm basically leading a sales organization. I knew next to nothing about sales before I took this job. Getting out of my comfort zone keeps me challenged. I want our people to do the same thing. They need to scrape their knees like I did, but know that I won't let them break their legs.”

It's easier to get people to do uncomfortable things when you lead the way. There is no more powerful influencer of behavior in the workplace than the role modeling of the leaders. To this end, ask yourself, “What is the most uncomfortable thing I've done at work in the last three months?” If you don't have a solid answer, maybe you're too comfortable. Here are some examples of minimally uncomfortable actions you can take to role model purposeful discomfort:

• Request to cover an agenda item at your boss's next status meeting.

• Make an apology to someone whose development you feel like you've been neglecting.

• Go to night school and take a certification class that's relevant to your job.

• Purposely solicit anonymous feedback about your leadership style and effectiveness by going through a 360-degree leadership-feedback process.

Open-Door Actions and Reflections

1. Use the boxes below to compare your answers to these two questions:

• Where are you playing it too safe in your career?

• What cost is too much safety is having on your career?

Playing It Safe

Cost to Career

2. Now that you know where you're playing it too safe and what it's costing you, identify two or three specific courageous actions you could take to

move into discomfort. Mark where on the comfort/ discomfort continuum each action resides. Actions with a rating of five or less may not be courageous— or uncomfortable—enough!

comfort discomfort

3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Consider the degree of comfort your direct reports have in executing their job assignments. For each direct report, identify one purposefully uncomfortable skill-stretching task.

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