#1 Let’s go back to a moment in your life...You’re about to take the step, and never have before. Nobody knows how huge this moment actually is except you, because you’re the one feeling your heart race, pores sweat, butterflies flapping in your stomach. Every fiber of your body is on red alert. It’s loud inside your head; your little voice is screaming at you, cajoling you, trying to reason with you... pulling out every trick it knows to get you to STOP. Decision time.
The last moment you had like that may have defined you. Because whether or not you took that step, whatever happened afterward either opened something up or shut something down, which is why you’ll remember it forever.
#2 Try this: Cross your arms, and then come back. Great. Now do that again, except this time cross them the other way (other arm on top this time). That felt weird, right? You wanted to cross them back the first way, didn’t you?
Welcome to your Comfort Zone.
Your comfort zone is drawn as a box, yet in reality is more like a big bubble that surrounds you, going with you wherever you go. But mentally, developmentally and metaphorically, it’s definitely a box that holds all the things you are used to, comfortable with, unconsciously competent at doing and generally unfazed by.
We already know that your little voice steers you through most decisions, and it’s either working for you, against you or in some other direction completely. While you might have a daredevil little voice, you definitely have another one, who's vested in you being consistently, solidly competent. It looks out into the unknown from inside your comfort zone, and says, “You’re not going to do that. That is the danger zone! You could fail. You could get rejected. Worst of all, you’re going to look really bad!” That same little voice is very vested in you looking good all the time. Stepping out into that danger zone, you could definitely look pretty bad, even stupid. So we usually don’t. Unless we do.
So, with that, think for a moment about your own comfort zone, and how you protect it in the name of credibility and strength. One of my favorite researchers, Dr. Brene Brown (a vulnerability expert) digs into the conflict of how we view vulnerability in ourselves vs. how we view it in other people. Think about a leader who stands up and shares something personal, who admits a mistake, who visibly takes a step out there, owns it, and then carries on, strong. Universally, we’re inspired by that, yet we don’t want to do it ourselves, right? Brown points out that we tend to see vulnerability as “courage in you, but weakness in me.” A dilemma, right? Brown asserts that “Vulnerability may actually be our most accurate measure of courage. In 15,000 pieces of data, I could not find one instance of courage that wasn’t completely underpinned by vulnerability.”
SO... How could you step out, showing some human vulnerability (and therefore courage) to blaze the trail for your team to step out? It’s time.
What have you been avoiding, working around or wishing you could do? Where do you know you need to push yourself into the growth zone? Where are you playing small? If you’re feeling a little discomfort thinking about it, you’re on the right track. So, it just depends on where your little voice pops up, and starting to challenge it in order to take on that box, and bust through.
This gets tricky as your "leadership position" gets more prominent. The stakes of your decisions get higher, the value of your expertise and mastery more focused. You've spent a lot (time, work, rungs) earning that credibility, so the tendency is to do what you can to stay solidly in that expertise. That’s very different from you in the growth zone, which feels squishier. Stepping out feels vulnerable, so you might stretch your CZ, but only on your own time, when nobody can see, so they don’t have to see you flail. Except if your people never see you stepping out, they never get the model or see you as human, and don’t feel permission to do it themselves. That's not good, and when I get called in later to a dysfunctional culture where people are hiding mistakes, trying to look perfect, imperfectly.
How to expand your zone...
Mark your territory. What are some things that you know you already do well or comfortably as a leader? This list can be as comprehensive as you want it to be. If you want to write a volume on this subject, go for it, but take a few minutes to map them out; it’s important to get clear about what’s already inside your comfort zone and get your strengths so you can build from there. Next, call out where you need to step out. Own it.
Look around. A great way to identify areas to stretch outside your comfort zone is to look at other leaders and the moves they make which you don’t. Or recall situations in which you’ve thought, “Ugh, I wish I could do that,” or “This is not a strong area for me,” or even “Not my style.” ...All big red flags. Then pick one. Or a few.
Step out enough. Make sure you’re actually stretching yourself to step out in a way that will challenge and stretch your ability to play life bigger, influence further, thrive more solidly. So, while putting my clothes away more often might be different from my norm, it’s not a comfort zone issue. I avoid putting my clothes away because I just don’t like to do it — not because it’s a stretch for me. Pick a true stretch.
Hold the tension. So is bigger always better? Not necessarily. This isn’t about jumping into the unknown everywhere with reckless abandon—that’s volatile leadership, which you don’t want. Great leaders are strategic and focused, but not limited by their boundaries, which takes a delicate balance of agility. Holding that tension between playing to your strengths and stepping out of your Comfort Zone to expand it takes self-awareness, willingness to call oneself out, and ability to learn efficiently and voraciously. Flex.
Map it. Write down what the benefit of doing this is for you—what might you have, which you don’t yet? A new confidence, ability to let it go, new domain in your wheelhouse? Then identify what you’ll need to do specifically and different than what you’ve been doing; Have the conversation instead of just thinking about it? Put the ideas out there instead of waiting to be asked? Try out what you know is possible instead of hoping someone else goes first? And finally, identify the key piece; for you to do this, what version of yourself will you need to be (brave? confident? strong? grounded? human?).
Big yet not so big. Some of the steps you need to take are one-shot-deals; those tough conversations, moments, hurdles you just need to take on rather than waiting for "the right time" (which never appears). That's a whole other category, to check out HERE.
Push it. You spent more time on the ground, falling than you did upright as you learned to walk. Don’t just step out one time. Do it as many times as you need to, making sure to tweak and refine each time, until you can say, “I can do this,” and can add it to your repertoire. The number one way people keep themselves from a bigger game is quitting too soon. It doesn’t work immediately and/or looks silly, so we do it a couple more times, and then say, “Yeah—that’s enough,” chalking it up to "that's not who I am." But maybe it was really too soon to tell! Keep going.
The bigger your comfort zone, the bigger your opportunity for uninhibited impact. That’s what we want for you—no situation that you come upon where you say, “I don’t think so” just because it’s new territory. You’re playing big and taking it on, as influencers do.