The workplace ‘discomfort zone’

Being comfortable has a downside: Stagnation sets in, and you lose your edge


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Sometime this spring, Michael Sam will join the workforce.

This is news because in February, Sam announced that he is gay, and the workforce he’ll be joining is the National Football League.

After Sam became the first major college football player to come out, the questions began. How will coming out affect his draft stock? Which teams might be willing to take on the “distraction” (read: media scrutiny) sure to come with having the first openly gay NFL player on their roster? How will fans react?

We won’t know until May 10 whether the University of Missouri graduate will be drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent, but most scouts agree he’ll land on an NFL roster one way or another. Once he does, the media will have something new to focus on: his teammates.

And in the debates about Michael Sam, one thing is considered a given — once he lands on a team, reporters will descend on the locker room to pepper his new teammates with this question: Are you comfortable having a gay teammate in the locker room?

Considering the supportive tweets many current NFL players sent when Sam came out, it’s clear that some of his future teammates will be perfectly comfortable. Others won’t be comfortable at all.

Reporters will try to smoke out uncomfortable players because “Player X Uncomfortable with Gay Teammate” is a headline that grabs attention. “Everybody Pretty Much Cool with Gay Teammate” sounds like a headline from The Onion.

But while such discomfort may seem scandalous in the news, it can actually be productive in the locker room — or in your workplace. Even if you don’t shower with your co-workers.

Consider discomfort

We all know the benefits of getting in a comfort zone at work. You know what you’re supposed to do, you know how to do it, and you know the skills (and quirks) of the people you’re supposed to do it with. Being comfortable at work can lead to open communication, robust productivity and consistent performance. That’s why leaders justifiably work hard to help employees get into a comfort zone.

But comfort has a downside. Stay too long in the comfort zone, and stagnation sets in. Get too comfortable, and you’re tempted to turn on autopilot and turn off creative problem-solving. Your ability to handle chaos and shift on the fly start to fade. Innovation suffers. Comfort melts into complacency. You lose your edge.

In the discomfort zone, assumptions get challenged. Expectations get re-evaluated. New ideas and new perspectives get introduced. Boundaries get pushed. Relationships get tested, and you learn to get along or move along. Growth, both personal and organizational, ensues.

Sharon Vosmek is the CEO of Astia, a nonprofit that supports women-led, high-growth companies. Yet her board, advisory boards, adviser teams and community members are exactly half-men, half-women. Why?

Discomfort.

“Within any given community, there are always some people who are more outside of the norm than others, and that leaves them feeling uncomfortable,” she told students last fall at Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar.

At Astia, men are outside the norm, because the focus is on women. And women are outside the norm because the focus is on venture capital. “So everyone feels a little bit outside the norm,” Vosmek said. “I call it ‘getting comfortable with uncomfortable’ … [and] if I were to redesign the high-growth economy, I would be striving towards everyone being equally uncomfortable. It’s where you sit on your edge just a little bit. You get into that space of listening a little bit better, because you’re not sure. And when everyone is equally unsure, you get some really exciting and juicy stuff happening.”

The good news is you probably have some discomfort in your organization already. After all, people who stand out in some way operate out of their comfort zone every day: the employee in the wheelchair navigating a workplace built for walking, not rolling; the Muslim co-worker trying to connect with co-workers discussing Christmas plans; the one vice president who’s a woman collaborating with the other seven vice presidents who are men.

The trick is to embrace that discomfort, rather than avoid it. Because that’s where growth happens.

Eric Ratinoff, principal of The Mouse and the Elephant, can be reached at eric@mouseandelephant.com. Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College and principal of BDS Insight, can be reached at loretta@bdsinsight.com. Learn more about diversity and inclusion by connecting with A Seat at the Table on Facebook.

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