On Leadership, Ambition and Your Comfort Zone

Fear of Public Speaking

As a leader, are you guilty of camping out in your personal comfort zone? Have you grown fat and happy in your daily routine? Have you decided to remain stuck in neutral?

If so, I ask you this:

“Do you really want to bury your ambitions and accept a mediocre version of yourself?”

The Silent Graveyard

Despite the innocuous name, our comfort zone is a treacherous place where we squander time, waste chances, and neglect potential.

Here in this silent graveyard we unknowingly bury our ambitions to the death-knell of our own achievements.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers insight into the danger: a comfort zone is ‘the range of temperatures within which an organism needs to expend no energy on thermoregulation’.

By analogy, in our comfort zone at work we operate in what British management theorist Alasdair White calls an “anxiety-neutral condition.” We repeat familiar patterns of behaviour, avoid challenges and difficulties, and demonstrate reluctance to change.

In a rapidly evolving world this means limiting ourselves to mediocre, noncompetitive performance.

Coming Alive

What can you do to escape the stagnation and decay of your comfort zone? A clue may be found in the ‘dancing mice’ of American psychologists Yerkes and Dodson (1908).

In the experiment, the mice were encouraged to choose and enter either a black or a white box. Attempts to enter the black box were greeted with a disagreeable electric shock. The researchers found that the greater the induced current, the faster the mice acquired the habit of entering the white box. Up to a point, that is: the habit was learned most quickly at a medium-level current (reassuringly, before the shock injured the mice).  With a high current, performance declined.

Interpretations of the Yerkes-Dodson Law have been diverse and sometimes cavalier. Still, one useful inference is that the anxiety (a form of arousal analogous to the electric shock) associated with unfamiliar activities can lead to skills development and performance increase.

In other words, much good can emerge from, for example, the dry throat, churning stomach, and trembling hands that undoubtedly will accompany your first presentation in a televised auditorium or having to speak in public.

Understanding Performance

When confronted with novel, anxiety-inducing situations, it is common first to deny the need to change and become defensive. It’s as if we are saying “What I was doing yesterday worked just fine; why change?

Performance may slip temporarily until we discard out-dated behaviours in favour of those suited to present needs.  However, as we use new skills we become more competent in them and performance improves.  Eventually, our comfort zone is enlarged: we operate at this, now normal, higher performance level without the intense anxiety that accompanied our first steps up the podium.

Still, such learning can be harrowing, in large part because it involves unlearning skills that were historically useful.  Naturally, we hesitate to subject ourselves to the electric-shock experience of a laboratory mouse.  How, then, can you overcome the anxiety that may keep you languishing in your comfort zone?

4 Tactics to Success

My work with senior managers at global organisations suggests that four tactics may be useful.

1) Get a grip on reality

A meaningful, often less anxious perspective can be achieved by assessing what the task really entails, what worst- and best-case outcomes are, and how you might reduce any risk.  Your live audience may not be half as scary as the one in your mind.

2) Publicise your commitments

Telling respected colleagues and friends what you aim to achieve can reinforce your accountability, and provide external motivation through difficult times, such as the eve of your maiden speaking engagement.  Other people are also a source of valuable encouragement and support.

3) Start today, and confront your challenge regularly

Anxiety subsides as you learn new skills and develop confidence in your ability to perform at higher levels.  Who ever became a great public speaker (or anything else) by saying “I’ll start tomorrow”?  A clear goal and rigorous discipline can help if motivation wanes.

4) Monitor your anxiety

We each have our own thresholds for what is bearable.  Whereas moderate anxiety is motivational, excessive levels can cause physiological and psychological damage as well as performance degradation.  Remember: the mice were stimulated, not electrocuted.

What is stopping you from signing up for that first speaking engagement (or doing whatever might benefit your performance)?  How much potential have you wasted by shying away from new challenges?  Stir from the graveyard of your comfort zone and revive your ambitions. It will help you as a leader and will help to strengthen your team.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Quentin Millington
Quentin Millington runs Noble Stamp Ltd
He helps Multinationals Harness their Global Cultural Peformance
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Book

Image Sources: the4thmarketeer.com


One response to “On Leadership, Ambition and Your Comfort Zone

  1. Nicely done. Always good to remind ourselves that our comfort zone is a dangerous place to reside. I would add my mantra to your list:
    “Every day I do something BOLD!”


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