Stepping out of our comfort zones

Taking on new tasks or responsibilities may sometimes be challenging, as they require us go beyond the familiar or ‘comfort zone’ and expose ourselves to scrutiny in an area where we are not immediately at ease. Stepping out of our comfort zones may take courage and additional effort but the stakes are high as this is ultimately what will allow us to avoid stagnation and grow towards our full potential.

Sarah congratulated Dan and Sasha, two of her group members on having successfully built an extremely complex piece of equipment within schedule and to the full satisfaction of the user-clients.

Sasha clapped Dan on the back saying, “We did it, mate” but Dan’s response of “No thanks to your attitude!” immediately wiped the smile off his face, and he left the room looking very shocked.

“What was that all about?” asked Sarah.

Dan explained that Sasha had complained throughout the whole project, constantly worrying that they did not have the necessary resources and expertise to complete the task in time, whilst at the same time holding up progress by repeating all the tests and double-checking everything. “I know that the techniques we were using were new to Sasha”, he said, “but his negative attitude only made things more difficult, even for himself. He needs to have more self confidence”.

“You do understand why he does that, don’t you?” asked Sarah, “it is probably a defence mechanism that he uses when he feels a little out of his depth. You do the same every time you ask me to repeat the steps of the procedure that we need to follow in our project”.

“But that is a very detailed step by step procedure that I simply don’t remember because I don’t work with it every day” says Dan, “its not that I am being negative, I just want to make sure that I get the sequences right”.

“How is it that you work with complex algorithms every day but you can’t remember this procedure? Could it be that, like Sasha, you find yourself working on something that is not in your usual domain and you do not want to risk getting it wrong?” Have you considered that Sasha’s complaining and your alleged memory loss may both be examples of the same thing?

Defence mechanisms such as these are strategies that we have developed over time in order to remain in our comfort zones and avoid facing new or difficult challenges in the workplace. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone in the work environment may cause anxiety or embarrassment, which in turn generates a stress response. This may take the form of defence mechanisms that range from denial (“I don’t remember”) or rationalization (“we don’t have the resources/expertise”) to over-compensation (repeatedly testing and double-checking), all of which ultimately result in limiting our performance and effectiveness.

Whilst defence mechanisms of this kind can sometimes be useful, it is up to us to recognize them for what they are and reflect on whether they are worth keeping or whether they are actually keeping us from achieving our full potential. In the final analysis they are simply learned behaviours, which can be replaced by others – it is just a matter of deciding whether we want to step out of our comfort zones and allow ourselves to grow.

Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill

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