Leadership Competencies

3 strategies to get out of a comfort coma

how to get out of a comfort coma, what a band leader taught me

What I learned from my daughter’s college marching band director

My daughter’s college marching band director is my favorite leadership muse. I watched him capture the attention of 400 band members before they ceremoniously marched to the stadium for a big game. His voice echoed through the parking lot as if he were at the podium addressing the National Mall. “This is your game day! You’ve practiced! You’ve worked so hard for this! You’re wearing the uniform! You represent yourself, your band and those who have worn the uniform before you! There is no place today for a comfort zone – push yourself! COMFORT ZONE IS COMFORT COMA!”

Boom, there it was! This man’s brilliance hit me like a ton of bricks. “Comfort zone” equals neutrality, safety, status quo, complacency – the enemies of growth, transformation and reinvention.

When comfort becomes uncomfortable

As leaders, we should all take time to reflect on these questions.

  • Where have I gotten comfortable?
  • Where might the executives I mentor have gotten comfortable?
  • How has their comfort become a detriment to themselves and their organization?
  • When does comfort become uncomfortable?

Who are you as a leader?

An important question I like to ask executives is, “Are you the leader your employees deserve?” Some leaders have said things like “Yeah, I’m as good as I’m gonna get” or “I’m the boss so they have to live with it” or “If they don’t like me, I’m not leaving.”

Responses like that stop me in my tracks because that isn’t the mental state of a leader open to change. I want to work with executives who continuously push themselves to be their best, and not just for personal gain. They want to be better for their company and all who rely on them including their staff, family, friends and community. I have yet to meet employees or organizations that can grow beyond their leader’s ability.

Comfort coma strategies

Has comfort started to equal complacency in your own life? Here are a few warning signs and strategies to safeguard yourself from a comfort coma.

1. You can’t spell ‘routine’ without ‘r-u-t.’

I remember talking with a group of leaders during a team-building workshop about the routines we get into. We discussed how these patterns may serve us well at times. But if we get too “routinized,” it’s difficult to change.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I do understand a thing or two about how the brain works. We are designed for efficiency. The neurons that help us do things without thinking (like walking) continue to fire along the same path – literally creating “ruts” or neural pathways in our brain.

If you go to western Nebraska, you can still see the ruts the wagon trains created when our nation was being settled. These wagon trains always followed the ruts of those that came before them. It helped reassure travelers they were going in the right direction. But once the ruts got a little deeper, it took a lot of effort to get out of them.

It takes a lot of physical energy to get out of a rut, and sometimes it’s easier to settle back in for a bit longer. Our minds, behaviors and company processes operate just like those old wagon trains. We find ourselves going through the motions of what we know works, but forget to make sure it’s still taking us where we need to go.

2. Find your people and harness their strength.

My husband used to tell our kids, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you where you’re going.” Who are you spending your time with? Are they raising your abilities or are they helping you stay comfortable?

Similar to the way my daughter felt about her band director, I am grateful to anyone who has pushed me beyond what I imagined possible throughout the many pivots and pirouettes of my career. If you continually work on the highest vision you have for yourself, little by little, a support system of champions will emerge to make sure there is zero quit in you.

3. Check your company culture for signs of comfort coma.

Part of my doctorate work was around how culture and leadership impact the environment and its people. I’ve learned it’s the company culture that often must be adjusted first before individuals’ talents can be fully realized.

The leader plays a crucial role in creating the right environment for people to flourish. We can have very talented people and well-established processes, but if the culture (leadership) doesn’t foster risk and celebrate failure, complacency will set in. Quite frankly, in this case, comfort coma a survival tactic. It’s a lot safer to stay in the rut versus stick our head up to change something or make a suggestion.

Executives should create a culture where employees feel safe enough to be themselves, to take risks and fail. Without this, we may not reveal hidden talents and skills or create breakthrough innovations that could benefit the organization. This style of leadership yields productivity and nurtures happier, more confident employees who are less likely to burn out on comfort.

So snap out of it!

As a business professional, there are actionable steps you can take to protect yourself and your employees from the pitfalls of comfort. To be a great leader, you can’t let your employees rest in a comfort coma. And snap out of yours, too.

Related articles:

Does organizational culture matter? (part 1)

Does organizational culture matter? (part 2)

Revealing the truth behind 5 common company cultural myths

Category: Leadership Competencies Organizational Culture & Values Personal Development

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Avatar About the Author: Janet Walker

Janet Walker helps CEOs and business owners become the leaders their employees deserve. She’s built a career in human-capital teaching, training and founding her own consultancy. “But,” Janet admits, “nothing satisfies my hunger for helpi…

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