Tips from the Leadership Coach: Get Your Employees to Step Out of Their Comfort Zone

Go Back to Searchlight Q3 2012


Lisa Thompson, Managing Director, Professional Serviceslisa thompson

One of the goals for leadership development programs is getting participants to step outside their comfort zones. It’s a universal human problem that affects CEOs, mid-level managers and aspiring young supervisors. After all, people develop attitudes, habits and other behaviors at an early age to cope with the stresses of their daily lives. But, all too often, that “comfort zone” becomes a box with walls on every side. Then, the HR professional must find a way to break through those invisible barriers to help future leaders reach their full potential in the organization.

Today, there are many activities that can lead to personal and professional growth and support a leadership development program. For example, stretch assignments give up-and-coming executives an opportunity to take on different types of projects. Some examples might be a temporary assignment to an office in a different state or country, a temporary promotion to a role with more responsibility, or an appointment to a cross-functional team to solve a complex problem. The nature of stretch assignments can vary, but the technique is similar: create a structured setting for an individual to move outside his or her comfort zone, see what happens, and evaluate performance.

Other leadership development strategies include organizing team-building challenges. For example, a group of executives could be placed in a novel or challenging setting, such as an outdoor hiking, climbing, or rafting experience. Team problem-solving sessions and trust-building exercises are other examples. Again, the goal of these activities is to pull participants outside their comfort zones and see how they respond.

However, HR professionals need to recognize the importance of putting a follow-up program in place. Once the excitement of the moment has passed, it’s easy for participants to fall back into their old routines and habits. Although they may have moved out of their comfort zone briefly, they have not integrated those mental and behavioral changes into their workday activities. Because personal change is an incremental process, leadership programs should focus on long-term progress, rather than short-term results.

One final note: HR professionals also need practice stepping outside their own comfort zones, trying out creative and innovative ways to support leadership development. They need to be risk-takers who are willing to make mistakes to expand their own personal and professional horizons. So, don’t be afraid to take risks—it’s the only way to keep expanding one’s comfort zone.

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