Uncomfortable: Getting Real about Workplace Change

by Kate Hammer

Let’s get real about comfort zones, before we launch into a workplace change program

Picture this:

You’re dressed in the clothes you wore as a 14-year old: wrists exposed by sleeves too short, and too narrow to bend properly at the elbow. Shoulders squeezed, waist cinched. Would you find that uncomfortable?

You’re on a crowded bus, moving at speed along a road pitted by potholes. Only your grip of the suspended plastic strap keeps you from falling forward or back into the bodies surrounding you. You think this is the express bus to your destination, but the low buzz of conversation around you is raising doubts. There are no stops, so you wait and see. Uncomfortable?

You leave your paperback book jackknifed on an old beach towel on dry sand, and set off walking along the sea edge. The dunes are covered with sea grass that blocks the view of any landmarks inland. Lost in thought, you lose track of time. When you turn to retrace your steps, the tide has risen and your footprints have been wiped away. You walk back the distance you think you travelled on your outbound journey but there is no sign of your towel or of your book. Are you uncomfortable?

Loss of comfort

Other words may spring to mind, and they are valid: awkward, embarrassing, disconcerting, claustrophobic, discomfiting, eerie. The range of related sensations points to the layers we bundle into our sense of what’s uncomfortable:

physical — related to our bodies

* social — with regard to our relation to others

cognitive — our trust in our senses and ability to intelligently navigate the external world

Values don’t exist in isolation from our experience as embodied, social, sensing creatures. Just talking about values (even if ours do overlap) doesn’t get us to comfortable.

If we’re going to talk meaningfully about comfort zones in work, it’s worth thinking with depth and detail what exactly we might mean by uncomfortable. After all, the whole point of a “comfort zone” is to provide a boundary that keeps the uncomfortable outside.

Implications for Change Programs

Before you launch a change program, ask yourself:

  1. How does our plan allow for and address comfort loss?
  2. Are we assuming everyone has the same willingness to sacrifice comfort for the sake of change?
  3. Do we make it plain why we’re asking people to move out of their comfort zones?

For more on Uncomfortable, please see my recent article on Medium.

image credit: (c) 1963 by Romul Nutiu, WikiArt.org

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Kate Hammer is a joint founder of KILN, working with large-scale companies in the USA and Australia to transform their internal innovation processes. Kate works as a business storyteller. In 2012, she created StoryFORMs to help others articulate their commercial & organisational stories. Kate offers workshops & 1:1 coaching.

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