I sure could use some comfort these days! It seemed like our world could not get crazier, with a global Pandemic and unprecedented political unrest. Now add a historic uprising against police violence and systemic racism to the list! Why would anyone want to willingly move to a place of discomfort? Why not just stay comfortable? Most of us try like heck to stay in a place that makes us feel safe, relaxed, and comfortable. It is human nature to prefer comfort over discomfort. However, most personal transformations start with uncomfortable energy.  How should we plan for discomfort? What do we do once we move out to a place of challenge? How long and often should we seek a comfortable place to hang out? You may be a high-performance leader but what will your future look like if you idle too long in comfort? A highly focused customized Zone Plan can give you a performance edge.   

I have worked with executives in close partnerships, exploring the detail of how they move through the Zones of Challenge. Together we built purposeful Zone Plans and tracked the results. Being purposeful and aware of what Zone they were in was crucial for their growth. It directly impacted how were perceived as leaders. So, consider a couple of key questions to get the pulse of your Zone Challenge approach. What happens when you start to feel challenged or uncomfortable? How do you handle your environment? Do you notice any mental model shifts, familiar fears, or inability to focus? What is your reaction to this energy and these sensations? Do you high tail it back to a comfortable place as soon as you can? 

I, for example, currently find myself squarely in the Challenge Zone with conversations on systemic racism. These direct conversations are extremely uncomfortable and long overdue. Discussing racism publicly and seeing some of the reactions is truly painful. I have had to shift my gears on awareness and internal self-talk while taking periodic breaks in the comfort zone. It has been an awkward and bumpy ride this month, to say the least. At the same time, I am deeply inspired by the honest conversations and the grand scale of community awakening that is taking place now.  I have found it helpful to check in on my zone plan and adjust according to the changing environment. It has been fascinating to observe how others are handling challenge and high risk (useful data to know when to employ patience and empathy).  

Let’s explore together the Zones of Challenge.

The Comfort Zone 
This is where I want to be! It feels relaxing, like a warm blanket. I feel confident and I know what I am doing. People like and appreciate me here. Sometimes I am bored, complacent, or numb. Think of the last time you spent the day binge watching Netflix. It can feel very relaxing, even a place to recharge, but after a while, you start to feel some toxicity. A good strategy here is to fully embrace the moment of comfort. Allow yourself to experience the luxury of relaxation! This is the perfect moment to plan reflection time, be creative, and have fun! You may also practice mind training using visualization or role play future situations. Picture yourself at ease, handling pressure and succeeding. On the other hand, if you stay comfortable too long, the space you are in will start to shrink. Even minor changes and disruptions will feel irritating. You will, in a sense, feel afraid to step outside of your cocoon. So, do not hang out for too long in the Comfort Zone!

The Challenge Zone
This is a place you feel vulnerable, unsteady, and not as confident. You may not be at your best or appreciated as much as you would like to. It can be disturbing.  Then again, a new rush of energy can be invigorating! Leaders are being challenged to operate differently, to trail blaze from the front in the Challenge Zone. It is critical for you as a leader to take the time to become aware of how you are projecting onto your own experience. It not only affects you, but those you lead as well. People watch closely how leaders act during crisis and challenge.  Their conduct sets the tone for their organization culture and its ability to thrive in hard times.

Once you move into the challenge zone, you start to build your endurance for the unknown and stress. If you visit the Challenge Zone often with purpose, you will become familiar with the type of energy here. It feels different! You may decide to start speaking up with another viewpoint. You may take a lateral move at work for the purpose of inspiring yourself. You may ask your team to step up their performance or give some direct constructive feedback to another senior leader. 

Many of my clients noticed that in this Zone, their existing opinions or judgements become stronger, while they struggled with ruminating thoughts. This is what makes the Challenge Zone so uncomfortable. Learning to let go of your belief in your judgements and opinions is a special technique you can learn. The letting go method can make challenging situations much less torturous. It is not necessarily about shutting down or becoming indifferent, but about learning to listen to this internal dialog like you listen to a radio. If you can learn how to apply this tactic while you are in the Challenge Zone, I can guarantee that you will see tremendous results in personal growth and outcome-based performance improvement. 

The High Risk Zone 
This Zone is extremely unpleasant. Your nervous system may go on red alert and you may feel panic. It may be hard to function in your daily life, things start to break down and others start to notice. The High Risk Zone should be avoided. At times, you may end up here. Being aware that you have stepped outside your Challenge Zone is key. Neurologically, your brain is in flight or fight mode and all the blood has gone to your extremities. This is not the time to make big decisions, send that mass email or have a crucial conversation with your boss! Be aware of how far you have dipped into the High Risk zone. Figuring out a retreat and recovery plan is ideal. A long-term approach is to develop what I call a “Back and Forth Zone Strategy”. Practice dipping into Challenge and then recover in Comfort. In and out! You will inherently end up expanding the existing space you have available for both Comfort and Challenge. 

In the coming months many of us will be facing the hard road to business recovery. Employees will be experiencing different levels of anxiety and crisis. Showing up as a leader who is focused and aware, while in the Challenge Zone, will set the tone for your team and business. You will expand your strengths and your ability to overcome obstacles that your business was not able to in the past. Working with clients to hone and develop the skills to take advantage of the Challenge Zone is a core part of my Coaching Process. It is a unique part of my proprietary methodology for performance coaching that never fails to produce tangible results!

Jen Rich, your Executive Coach