I find it so much easier to do things the way I’ve always done them. The familiarity that comes with staying in my comfort zone is, well… comfortable. Even if I don’t get the exact results I want, at least I have some sense of stability and mental security! Unfortunately, certainty and stability are not all they’re cracked up to be in an ever-changing environment!

Here’s a cogent example. The other evening I was sitting comfortably in my family room browsing Netflix to choose my next movie to stream. I recalled my previous process for accessing movies, which now seems like ancient history! I vividly remember making semi-weekly drives to Blockbuster (five miles from my house at the time), walking up and down the store aisles, reading the backs of the DVD covers to determine if the movie looked any good, waiting in the checkout lane to borrow the DVD, and then scheduling my movie-viewing to make sure I got it back to the store on time (or pay the consequences of a late fee!).

Of course we all know what happened to Blockbuster! They got comfortable. They continued to rely on what had always made them strong in the past. They didn’t challenge themselves to think differently as the world changed around them. Even when the handwriting was on the wall… even when it was clear that customers were migrating to a more convenient way to get movies… Blockbuster kept doing what they’d always done. They stayed in their comfort zone until there was nothing left to do but close up shop. In 2010, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Our comfort zone is that space where our thoughts, behaviors and actions fit a secure pattern that makes us feel safe and keeps things minimally stressful. In fact, our brain is wired to keep us in the safety of our comfort zone. We prefer things we know, and favor our familiar routines. Certainty and stability feel rewarding, like a warm, cozy security blanket. Doing things differently means we have to take risks, and we fear the possibility of failure, rejection, criticism or embarrassment.

But as comfy as our comfort zone feels, it is also a dangerous place. The dangers come in three flavors… complacency, inflexibility, stagnation. These hazards leave us mired in fabricated contentment, stalled in stubbornness, and susceptible to becoming irrelevant.

And so, it’s in our best interest to move to the edges and push through our comfort zone. That’s where true leadership happens. I’m not talking about heroics. I’m simply suggesting there are things we can do on a daily basis to push at the edges of our comfort zone. Here are a few ideas…

  1. Recognize we don’t have all the answers and that it’s possible we may be operating from old or misguided assumptions. Stephen Covey noted: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are ── or, as we are conditioned to see it.” Have the courage to question your assumptions and beliefs. Open your mind to alternative perspectives. Dare to think differently.
  2. Resist the impulse to blame others (CMS, surveyors, corporate office, employees, or competitors) for our challenges. Take ownership and responsibility for addressing issues head-on.
  3. Push to change a policy that no longer makes sense. Give voice to your concerns. Start discussions that you may previously have been hesitant to have because you didn’t want to ‘stir the pot’ or ‘make waves’.
  4. Converse with people who are different from you. Actively listen to their stories and perspectives. This not only contributes to your personal growth, it leads to a more inclusive workplace.
  5. Be willing to do what’s right, over and above what is convenient, or politically advantageous. Know your core values and live by them.
  6. Dare to dream big. Create a vision that gets to the heart of what you want for your organization or department. Share it with your team. Find the compelling language that inspires people to join you in bringing your aspirations to fruition.

Reality is getting realer. The pressures are feeling heavier. There is no denying that fear and uncertainty exist. Ironically, people who attempt to avoid discomfort actually create more of it. However, if you challenge yourself to do things you may not normally do, and do them in a manageable way, you build your ‘productive discomfort’ skills. By taking even small risks, what was difficult or stress-producing becomes easier as you repeat it, and you ultimately have an easier time dealing with change and uncertainty.

We have to learn to live with and lean into our discomfort knowing that the best things happen at the edge of our comfort zone. After all, the true test of a leader is not what happens during stress-free times, but how a leader responds to challenges.

“We can’t write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity or imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions.” — John Gardner

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.