The "Comfort Zone"

In my last post entitled "What constitutes Good Management" I mentioned the importance of stepping out of your "comfort zone" when it comes to making a major step in the right direction. The question is "how do we do that and what approach should we take?". If you are not the least bit afraid to step into the "unknown" then you should be! There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence sends us forward with our senses acute and ready. Arrogance sends us blundering into the "dark" with no real sense of direction. It doesn't usually take much personal acuity to decide which of these applies when we observe people.

We often hear that "Joe Blow" is very ambitious but what does that really mean. Unfortunately, we tend to view the word in a negative context. Indeed "blind ambition" tends to be destructive because it invariably has a highly selfish component. However, "directed ambition" can be a force for good because ambitious people have a drive and energy, which makes things happen. They tend to be "doers" rather than "planners". That's not to say that they go forward without a plan but they don't get bogged down in "paralysis by analysis".

Assuming that we have the "right stuff" then how would you prefer to step outside of your "comfort zone"; "slow and steady" where you have time to try and assimilate your new situation or to "jump in at the deep end" and see how good a swimmer you are? Of course, there is no absolute right or wrong answer and circumstances very often dictate your fate. I have seen, and been in, a number of situations where it is a deliberate policy to throw you a boat anchor and see how long you can stay above water. Is that fair? Well since life isn't fair that judgment is an entirely personal one! Is it pleasant? I certainly didn't find it very pleasant. Does it find out what you are really made of? Most certainly. When it first happened to me, my first reaction was to be thrilled at my promotion and my first real management opportunity, immediately followed by mind-numbing panic!

Could I do this? Did I really want this promotion? What would happen if I turned it down? These are very real and common reactions. One half of me wanted to progress, not for pure ambition but to go on "growing" both personally and professionally, and the other half was saying, "is it really worth the hassle?". On top of that we have to layer the "support the family" pressures pushing you to go on. Unfortunately, I have never been one to shy away from a challenge or want to be left wondering, "could I have done it?". Needless to say I always pressed on.

Did the "deep end" make or break me? Fortunately for me, despite the attendant pressures, it "made me". I discovered things about myself that for many years others had said simply weren't there. So please bear in mind that if you are responsible for assessing job performance and possible future positions for someone, don't be too quick to judge too early in someone's career. When it gets on paper it is "written in stone". Not only may it not be correct but it is unjust. Only by my own insistence, the intervention of a supportive manager and through chance events did I get my opportunity to prove that I was management material.

The environment that I was working in was very challenging. Did the "deep end" approach work for everyone? Definitely not. Many fell by the wayside. Typically you got 3 - 6 months to "sink" or "swim" and then it was, "next victim, please". When I look back on it now, it would be easy to have had a "love - hate" relationship with that job. I was working in a unionized production environment, which had an immediacy that was thrilling and stimulating, and yet at the same time I was working on the "Red Clyde" in Scotland; yes Red meaning what you think - extremely socialist and militant. However, I truly believe that I would not be the person that I am today without the 5 years of early management experience that I gained. No management position that I have had since had the unique challenges and opportunities for personal growth that that environment provided. I guess it was my management "baptism by fire", which is probably one of the reasons that it stays fresh in my memory.

So what is the purpose of my story? Yes, there is a purpose. What I didn't tell you is that immediately prior to these particular events I had sort of been "apprenticing" for a while under an experienced production manager, ie. "the slow and steady" experience. I was gradually given more and more responsibility and exposure. It was valuable, and I was very fortunate to have a good tutor, but I very soon discovered that it wasn't the "real world". It didn't really prepare me for what was to come. So am I advocating the "sink or swim" approach? Not entirely. It can be unnecessarily destructive and somewhat cruel at times. As with most things we need to look for a "happy" medium. A "sheltered" approach will not equip you for real events and may in fact give you a false sense of confidence. When I think back what I feel that I would have benefited from was basically a "sink or swim" approach but with someone experienced alongside "the pool" to pull your head above water from time to time to stop you going down for the third time; a kind of mentor/coach with a clear responsibility for you and priority time to do the job properly.

We all know that it can be a hard world but let's not "throw the baby out with the bathwater" for the sake of taking a supportive approach to the development of our potential future managers.

Graham J.

Comments (1)

  1. Stephen Ibaraki. I.S.P. says:


    What a compelling blog post and one that I agree with. Your long history as a versatilist working in a number of demanding environments provides a strong backdrop to your blogs combining best practices with practical experiences.

    Purely from a career perspective, I was dialoguing on this topic over the weekend where I was asked, “How do you know when to take on a challenge?” My response, do you see growth, then take it on. You don’t necessarily have to see the entire path to the goal—you just need to see the next steps with a overall direction towards your goal. I use an analogy of getting to a mountaintop in the dark. You can’t see the top but you can see the next 50 meters ahead—the extent of your lights. You take these 50 meters and you will see the next … and so on. Ultimately, you will reach your objective of getting to the top.

    Your blog has triggered the thought of sharing Colin Powell’s 18 tips on leadership. They are very good ones and over my career, I have seen their effectiveness.


    Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.

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