Leaders’ comfort zones trap them in ineffective behavior.  No growth can happen until they move beyond their own walls.

How leaders overcome their comfort zoneWe all know what our comfort zone is – and we all have one.  The problem with living in your comfort zone is that it means you’ll continue to do the same things that you do now, with the same outcomes.  Maybe that’s fine, but most people think that things could be better if they could do some things differently – they would learn more and be happier if they could overcome their comfort zone

Each leader has his or her own comfort zone, and what it means to step out of it is different for everyone.  Perhaps it’s delegating more for the manager who likes to be in control, or engaging more directly with difficult employees for the manager who prefers everyone to get along, or moving faster for the manager who likes to have everything buttoned down. We each have our style and approach, and trying something different is the key to growing.

What’s holding YOU back?

But stepping outside our comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable.  The first step in breaking out of your comfort zone is understanding what’s holding you back.  Maybe you’d like to be better at giving feedback to your employees or handling conflict on your team.  What’s keeping you from changing the way you do it?  Common barriers include:

  • Competence challenge – I’ll do it wrong or be bad at it, or I don’t know how to do it
  • Faker syndrome – everyone will know I don’t know what I’m doing, they won’t take me seriously
  • Lack of authenticity – that’s not who I am
  • Fear of the outcome – it’ll be painful or hard to do
  • Frustration – why should I have to do this
  • Likability – people won’t like me if I act like this
  • Habit – it’s easy to do things the same was as always, and it takes work to change


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The challenge may be different for different things that take you out of your comfort zone.  Understanding the challenge gives you a good idea of how to overcome it.

12 Steps to overcome your comfort zone

But understanding the challenge is just the first step – overcoming the challenges is far tougher.  Our brains are wired to develop stories to explain events around us, and those stories are often very separated from fact.  We all have stories about ourselves – I can’t do math, I can’t talk in front of crowds, I’m too introverted to network, etc.  Often those stories are wrong – or would be wrong if we took the time and effort to work on the things we’re worried about.  But these “self-limiting stories” box us in and define our comfort zone.

1. Recognize it’s a journey – changing behavior is hard and takes ongoing work.  And that work is easier with support.  Having support as you take the learning about more effective behaviors and translate it into actions is important.  For example, our Workshop Enhancement service provides ongoing coaching or development specialist support as well as regular activities to keep you on target.

2. Start early – the longer bad habits and behaviors become entrenched, the harder they are to fix.  Often leaders never overcome their early bad habits.  Work with your company to get support and guidance early.

3. Understand your challenge – spend time to be honest with yourself about why the activity makes you uncomfortable, what’s the barrier that keeps you from feeling comfortable;


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4. Be clear on why you’re doing it and what the real downside is – take time to prepare a list of the positives that come from getting better at the activity, and list the negatives.  What really will happen if you throw yourself into it, and is it fixable?  For example, for someone who doesn’t like networking, what really could go wrong? Is it really that bad?  Research often shows that people overestimate the negative consequences or negative impact that failure will have on them.  An honest evaluation of the downside will help you determine if it’s really that bad.

5. Do a pre-mortem – a pre mortem is a thought exercise where you imagine that you’ve engaged in the activity, it’s finished, and it’s gone badly, and you ask, what went wrong? It’s the process of telling a story of failure, with a focus on understanding the factors that led to the failure.  The pre mortem is a good way to prepare a list of your concerns, which helps you prepare for them.

6. Make a plan – preparation gives you control, and control makes all situations less anxiety provoking.  As a result, the better prepared you are, the more comfortable you’ll be. Plan both for how you’ll do the activity and how you’ll deal with your barrier.  For example, if you have trouble giving feedback because you don’t like conflict, first prepare the feedback you’ll give.  Make sure you’re ready and know what you’ll say. And then prepare for the conflict. Perhaps review the feedback with a trusted colleague to make sure it’s fair and honest but not confrontational. Schedule the session in a place you feel comfortable.  Prepare how you’ll respond if the person reacts negatively.

7. Do a post mortem – spend time to understand what went well and what didn’t.  For the things that didn’t go well, make a plan to do them better next time. As noted above, having a plan to make address the challenges makes them easier to tackle.


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8. Get support – having help is one of the most important parts of overcoming your comfort zone.  Your support team will push you to do more than you would, see the positive when you just see the failure and offer good tips and support.  Your support team also can help as you go – for example, an extroverted supporter can be a great supporter to help an introvert work on networking or expanding influence by building relationships.

9. Celebrate successes – having the courage to move outside your comfort zone is a real accomplishment, and recognizing and acknowledging what you did well gives you deserved positive feedback.  It’s common for people to think their comfort zone is a weakness, and to minimize the things they do well to over come it (“I should have been able to do this anyway”).  Embracing your successes is important for continuing to  make progress.

10. Practice – nobody likes to hear this, but the only way to get comfortable with a comfort zone issue is to throw yourself into it.  Practice, if done well, will make you better at the activity and will make it more routine, which is less anxiety provoking.  But be sure to prepare as described above, and to use every opportunity to plan how you can do even better next time.

11. Respect your emotions – everyone has emotions and they’re real and powerful factors in what we do and how we act. Don’t feel bad about them, but focus on how you can control them to continue working on expanding your barriers.

12. Accept that it might never be easy – some things will be hard no matter what we do, and that’s ok.  Remind yourself why they matter, what you hope to accomplish, and you can at least make them less painful.

Coaches are great resources to help you break through these barriers.  They will help you get to the root of the barrier, and they will help you develop strategies to overcome your self-limiting stories.  And when those stories drive the nagging doubts that often cause failure, a coach provides accountability and support.

Helping overcome comfort zones is especially important for early career leaders who are still developing their skills and their ideas of what they can and cannot do.  Over time, bad managerial skills become habits and the self-limiting stories become stronger and stronger.  Left unchecked, these bad habits and powerful stories are much harder to address when managers have become senior leaders.  Coaching for junior and mid-level managers is particularly helpful both for building your full leadership team today and preparing those leaders to assume senior roles as they move forward.


Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350 person internet company and is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.

Careerwave’s technology-based leadership coaching service is effective and affordable enough to provide a coach to every manager in your company.  Whether you need to coach 1 leader or 100, or need a full leadership program or just an addition to your current program, we can build a program for you.   To learn more, sign up below or contact us at info@careerwave.me, or visit our leadership solutions page.



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