We talk a lot of about how important it is to be able to get out of our comfort zones. Getting out of the comfort zone is how we grow, it’s how we learn, it’s how we discover new things, both personally and professionally. If we’re only ever willing to do what’s comfortable, we can coast along, just paying attention to the daily minutia of our businesses, and then wake up five years later to discover we’re no longer relevant in our industry.
But what’s outside of the comfort zone? If you go too far outside of the comfort zone you get into what my friend Vince Langley calls the sheer terror zone.
The sheer terror zone is where whatever’s going on is too much and we just stop. It might not even be a conscious decision—when you find yourself just forgetting to take certain steps, or maybe there’s never any time to try something new because you’re too busy dealing with day-to-day issues, what I call playing Wack-a-Mole, to take a step back and look at the big picture—that might be the terror zone at work.
Different things do it for different people. Some people are afraid of heights. Other people are afraid of looking like fools. Whatever it is, you get too close to that terror and you jump back automatically. It’s like touching a hot stove. It’s important to stay away from the sheer terror zone, because we don’t have time to stop. We can’t afford to not take risks.
So, what can we do? How do we learn to tolerate discomfort so that we can push ourselves and grow?
The question applies not just to us as CEOs, but also to our colleagues and employees. It’s our job to build their capacity to handle discomfort as well, so they can grow and our companies can thrive. Just ordering people to do things they can’t stand to do won’t work, just like willing ourselves to quit being terrified won’t work.
Instead, we have to look at potential costs vs. benefits. If someone is stuck because a task is so far outside of their comfort zone that they’re just panicking, we can get them moving by either reducing the perceived cost or by increasing the potential benefit. If I ask you to climb up the cables of the George Washington Bridge and you’re afraid of heights, you’ll probably say no. If I say there’s ten thousand dollars waiting for you up at the top, maybe you’ll try it. If your kid is stuck up there, you’ll climb up to save your kid. Or, maybe we can reduce the perceived risk by giving you a safety harness and maybe a mask so you can’t see how high up you are.
As CEOs, we have to find ways to do both, increase perceived benefit and decrease perceived risk—and we have to do it in ways that are meaningful to the person facing the challenge, because different people have different fears and look for different rewards.
Maybe that means being more transparent about why the company needs to take certain steps or adjusting compensation packages so people have a greater stake in the outcome. Maybe it means breaking up a project into manageable tasks and letting multiple people work together as a team. A big part of it is helping the people we work with find ways of accomplishing necessary goals in ways that work for them. For example, let’s say you have a colleague who is painfully, just intolerably shy, and you need this person to make a couple of cold calls for you. It’s not going to happen—that phone might as well weigh three thousand pounds. But if you let him or her make the contacts via email, that could work.
The take-away here is that sometimes in order to get ourselves—or our employees and colleagues—out of our comfort zones we need to make challenges seem a little less scary and a little more worthwhile. Given the choice between comfort and sheer terror, we all choose comfort every time. But if we can make a little space between those two extremes, then we can go ahead and take the risk. And every time we take risks, we get a little better at it.
We become more able to face the sheer terror zone.