In one of my past HR roles, I had a presentation for employees on the topic of performance management and development. I mentioned that to develop skills and unleash potential, one needs to step out of a comfort zone because a certain level of discomfort is a good sign of skills improving. One of the employees rose up with a question: “But what if I am happy where I am and do not want to level up? What if I have already found my sweet spot?”
I knew him already for some time and understood he truly found his dream job as an individual contributor. I also felt he liked doing tasks he was good at and didn’t feel the urge to try new things. He valued his comfort a lot. I told him that it was perfectly fine that he liked where he was in his career and didn’t want to move out of his current job role.
“On the other hand,” I told him, “Sometimes, to stay in your sweet spot you must step out of your comfort zone to keep up with the business or your field of expertise that is changing and developing constantly.”
For me, sweet spot and comfort zone are not synonyms.
If you have found your career sweet spot, it means you found your dream job – the job where you feel happy because you feel self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Your skills, knowledge, motivation and values fit in nicely with what you do.
But if you stay in your comfort zone, you do what you are good at without taking risks, experimenting, and getting stressed by starting new, unknown, challenging projects. It’s comfortable, and you feel you are highly effective. Your mind stays calm, but you are stuck as you do not develop new skills in new situations.
As an American author John Augustus Shedd supposedly wrote: “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” If you stay only in your comfort zone, you are not living to your fullest potential. There is always a way to improve and learn new skills and not stagnate. Change is important as change means life.
The mistake junior managers often make
Managers play a key role in helping their team members unleash their potential and find their sweet spot at the same time.
One of the ways to do that is through empowering them. Junior managers often fail to do this because they enjoy that people follow their lead.
More than 10 years ago I was leading a division of consulting where we were working on projects such as assessment and development centers, personnel audits, soft-skills trainings, etc. One of the people on my team had great potential, but only after I left the company did she start to execute the project management role to the fullest. Till then she looked up to me for guidance and advice. Then I left and she had to ‘fight her own battle’ and realized she was very good at it. This was a big lesson for me. In my absence, she had to step out of her comfort zone, but through doing that she acquired new skills and trust in them and found her true sweet spot.
Throughout my career, I have encountered many junior and senior managers who made mistakes similar to mine, confusing the comfort zone with the sweet spot.
Being promoted, they typically inherited a team and neither dared to reevaluate how fit the team members were for their roles, nor did they actively seek more information about their sweet spots and potential or challenge team members to move out of their comfort zones.
I heard one such junior manager say this about one of his subordinates: “Julie does not take too much of my time as she is great at what she does and likes her job.” This manager did not invest time in this particular subordinate as he assumed everything was all right. And all right it was, and possibly could continue to be (at least for some time). However, Julie had great potential which was not being used to the fullest.
I consulted her manager, and he finally understood that even with people who seem happy, effective, and efficient where they are, it is useful to have conversations that help them see opportunities for self-development they have not seen before.
The role of a manager
My strong belief is that to succeed as a leader, it is wise to start your leadership journey by gathering information about people on your team. You should gather feedback from others as well as seek the information from your subordinates during one-on-ones. Ask them what they like and dislike doing and why, what their passions are, what drives them to “get out of bed each morning” and achieve great results at work.
After you understand what the sweet spot is for a team member, you can support him in leveling up by getting uncomfortable. When you empower him by giving him an opportunity to shine during a completely new project or in a role above his current responsibilities, you both might realize there has been a hidden potential that would never be used to the fullest by staying in the comfort zone.
It is through these interactions with your subordinates
you not only get to know what drives them to bring the best results,
but you also help them show the best version of themselves.
Helping your team members with that might be the biggest challenge that moves you out of your comfort zone. But, believe me, it is worth the effort!
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