Leadership hack 021 – getting out of the comfort zone

Encouraging your team to adopt a ‘growth mindset‘ will benefit you, your team and your bottom line (see HBR article here).  When Satya Nadella took over as Microsoft’s CEO spent considerable time and energy encouraging those around him to adopt a growth mindset (see this HBR article), and while he has also made some great strategic decisions (e.g., Azure, reducing Windows’ importance and AI), many suggest that his changing Microsoft culture was his most challenging problem and largest success.

To explain a growth mindset to my team, I draw three concentric rings on a whiteboard or notepad (see below).  I show the three levels of stress placed on an individual in their work environment.  The ‘comfort zone‘ is where most people spend the majority of their time at work.  The work may be complicated or complex, but it is not difficult, challenging or new.  The ‘growth zone‘ is where a person needs to adapt and learn new skills, and while it is challenging and uncomfortable they can make progress.  The ‘panic zone‘ is where the situation is so different or stressful that it is beyond a person’s ability to cope.



Carol Dweck (a prominent psychologist) suggests that we can all improve (see TED talk at the link below for a more in-depth explanation).



To explain how careful exposure to new situations can help people grow and adapt, draw a series of arrows emerging out from the comfort zone into the growth zone (see below).  The arrows represent excursions outside peoples comfort zone, where they face new or novel challenges.  As these excursions increase in frequency and duration, it pushes out the comfort and growth zones, as you become more able to handle new situations.



Next, explain how failing to push yourself (or be pushed!) into new or challenging situations, reduces your ability to deal with sudden shocks and makes you less able to develop new skills or take on new responsibilities (see diagram below).



Next, explain how being pushed too hard forces people into a panic, with serious consequences.  Stress, at a level you are not used to, is likely to manifest itself in mental and even physical symptoms.  Under high stress, your decision-making ability is compromised as you are more vulnerable to cognitive biases.  Once you have crossed the threshold into a panic, need to go back to your comfort zone to recover.  The experience of panic will have also shrunk your growth and panic zones, making you more vulnerable in the future,



By showing that everyone can adapt and grow and that anyone can be pushed too hard, your team will be more able to understand what is happening to them in stressful situations, and then speak up if it gets too much.

A great HBR article highlight 5 mistakes (see below) that companies make when discussing or implementing growth mindsets (you can find the article here):

  1. Myth #1: Growth mindset means striving for business growth.
  2. Myth #2: Businesses, rather than people, can have a growth mindset.
  3. Myth #3: Growth is unbounded — or, anyone can become an opera singer.
  4. Myth #4: Growth mindset is binary. S
  5. Myth #5: Growth mindset means having a positive, can-do attitude no matter what.


Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback on this post.