Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Comfort Zone is Just a Rut with Padding

Wished a friend good luck with her new job earlier this morning and that phrase just popped out of no-where. Now I've been thinking about it all day. She works for the government, and wants to be a writer. She should be: she's clever, insightful, and she wants to be read. So she puts effort into finding an audience. After a few years of mid level clerical jobs, she's finally found a position where she can use her analytical and research skills. We wondered (through our primary communication method - discussion forum private messages) why it took so long.

It's easy to recognize when one is in a rut - crabbiness, impatience, frustration, sensing something is wrong but not sure how to fix it. And then there's the comfort zone - it's the safe, warm place that's a little dull and routine but ultimately good enough.

So when does the comfort zone become the rut?

It's when the fluffy cozy bits start to wear thin and the stubbly edges of the previously unseen rut start to scratch and scuff. It's when a favourite project ends and there's nothing interesting ahead, or a colleague throws you under the bus, or a manager ignores your contribution. Figuring out that you've failed to progress because you've been protected or lied to about what's going on outside. It's when you realize that the form-fitted mattress was filled with air and not substance. It's when you are shocked to realize the cushy title and corner office was just a padded cell.

Update - lent my copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers to another friend last night. Handing it over, realized I had dog-eared a page. Looked at what I had flagged. It was the section on the Korean Airline pilots and how cultural norms needed to be recognized and addressed before behaviours could be changed in the interest of air safety.

Now I remember. I read that chapter nibbling on some lovely charcuterie and sipping a rosé, sitting by myself one night in Paris. Just like the chief engineer quoted in the anecdote, many of us get squeamish when it comes to calling out corporate culture as a root cause of fear and failure.

The attitudes, assumptions and ingrained behaviour adopted by the pilots had now become a contributing factor to serial disaster. Even though this very behaviour was expected by peers to fit in and get along in the workplace.

"We took them out of their culture and re-normed them".

Taking individuals out of the comfort zone of a world-view shaped by bullying...exposing them to new ideas and methodologies...breaking stereotypes and dispensing with de-humanizing hierarchy...building an environment where it is safe to speak truth to power.


  1. all I can think of to say is "hit the nail on the head" (don't you love those sayings? Great post!

  2. Phew, for a minute there I thought this was going to apply to me. Good thing it`s clearly about someone else. ;-)

  3. Thanks for this post, Cheryl. It really struck a chord with me.

  4. I love outliers - particalarly the study on the Korean pilots. If you had stayed at OT you could have studied the cultural norms that led to the Vignette business slowly growing smaller each year. It would have made a very interesting study. Hope your enjoying the new job and getting to understand the "culture" of the new organisation.

  5. As usual Cheryl, a great post.

    Oddly enough - haven't (yet) read Outliers, but that case of the Korean pilots is being circulated in many corners... and that's a very good thing.

    I've been looking into REAL change management extremely deeply lately. The work we're doing on the 2.0 Adoption Council, writings such as "How Nasa Builds Teams" (GREAT book), and "Immunity to Change" (interesting research-based work from a psychology and organizational development/behavior point of view), and even "Who's Got Your Back?" by Keith Ferrazzi, who has matured incredibly in his approach since "Never Eat Alone" (which is still a fantastic read - just less focused and more me than we).

    We've all got a lot of learning to do - but it seems this is beginning to get a lot easier/more interesting for all of us. And it's about time!