What is it about discomfort, which means so many of us avoid it?

What is it about discomfort, which means so many of us avoid it? After all, we love a ‘rags to riches’ story, but we focus on the progression and the riches – not the rags.

We love The Hero’s Story (the character arc behind films like Spiderman Homecoming and Divergent), but that involves challenges and almost being defeated before our character finds their inner strength and the allies who’ll join their cause, before they become the hero.

Do we believe someone’s really a hero, unless they’ve overcome significant adversity and discomfort on the journey to success? And yet, we’d rather watch a summary of others’ discomfort, preferably whilst eating popcorn, than experience and embrace discomfort ourselves.

But what does that mean for our lives and our careers? In avoiding the discomfort, in cutting it short, rather than stretching ourselves, what success and breakthroughs are we missing out on? Are we destined to never be the heroes of our own story?

Despite being in some discomfort, I’m off for another 30 mile bike ride; the overall enjoyment during and the feeling of accomplishment and success after the ride are much greater than the discomfort. But that’s something I can almost guarantee, and maybe, therein lies the difference.

We go through the discomfort because it’s worth it, and we’ll grow. This is commonly known as The Stretch Zone. There used to be 3 zones: Comfort, Stretch and Panic. Then a fourth was added: Super-stretch, when you’re right on the edge of balancing your skills and capability, and the risks of falling are higher. The definition for Gym Pose no. 13, in the picture above, is, ‘You feel energised by the challenge, but on the edge of your capability; it’s a balancing act.’

And now, I wonder if there’s a fifth zone: Stress. So many people can’t even get into their Comfort Zone, let alone have sufficient resilience and energy to venture into their Stretch Zone. Or maybe they’re constantly in their Super-stretch Zone, and not through choice. The sharp increase in inflation, through higher energy prices, increased mortgage/ rent and food prices etc, is inflicting significant pain.

“Significantly, half (50%) of UK adults were at least a little worried about being able to afford food over the next few months, rising to 67% of younger adults aged 18 to 34.” Opinium, Nov 2022

When people are already in the Super-stretch Zone, it’s no surprise they’ll struggle to take on more discomfort or challenge at work. Or that they’ll numb the pain through binge-watching TV, alcohol, drugs or try gambling. And most of those are not only legally, but socially acceptable. Having recently experienced a close family bereavement, I can certainly empathise with the binge-watching TV as a way to press pause on the overthinking. But I’m also lucky because I love my work, and find it easy to get comfort and motivation through it.

So it’s well worth employers exploring EAP (Employee Assistance Programmes), which are designed to help employees resolve problems that may be affecting their performance at work. Some EAP’s provide access to counselling and some provide access to financial assistance, e.g. for car or household repairs, without the employer needing to know. Just this week, Asda has offered its staff early access to accrued wages to help with financial difficulties. Bravo Asda! There’s been significant evidence of the links between financial difficulties and mental ill-health for years now, and I know of other employers who provide access to a counsellor on a ‘no questions asked’ basis which has been greatly valued by their employees.

How do we know if our team members are in the Comfort, Stretch, Super-stretch or Panic Zone? Depending on the level of trust, we could ask. A useful question that I recommend to leaders & managers to use during Development Reviews is, “When thinking about your job over the next year or two, do you want more responsibility, less or the same?”

It’s also helpful because people rarely know where or how they want their career to develop, but the answer to that question allows us to explore it with them. If it’s more responsibility:

  • Do they want to manage other people or projects?
  • Do they want more decision making or autonomy?
  • Do they want to develop specialist expertise, or explore and use their skills?

If it’s less responsibility, what does that look like? Is it less responsibility overall, or a job that has more flexibility for their personal priorities? Is it temporary or long-term? If we provided more support, could that make the current level of responsibility more manageable? And what would that support look like? Is it more feedback, training, access to resources, mentoring etc?

If it’s the same level of responsibility, how else can we improve and develop your career? Do you want more variety, or some experience of other activities and roles, i.e. job crafting?

Most people believe in the hero’s journey, and would love to the hero of their own story. Some people are fortunate to be able to do that through their work.

What we do know is that the level of challenge must be balanced by an equal level of support (Liberating Leadership), and employers have a responsibility to help where sensible and possible, and employees have a responsibility to help themselves wherever possible. This is about inter-dependence not dependence. It’s about satisfying the foundational motivators of security, belonging and feeling valued, which release people’s potential to stretch and take risks. It’s about almost being able to guarantee that the growth we’ll gain through the discomfort will help us thrive and will add to our feeling of accomplishment, because we believe we will succeed.

‘You feel energised by the challenge, but on the edge of your capability; it’s a balancing act.’


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