It had been five years since I've gone swimming in the ocean. When I went to the beach with my family for vacation this summer I forgot how to handle the waves. This lapse in memory made me feel unsure and concerned. And I completely lost my footing, getting pulled under in a few of the bigger waves.
In short time though, it all came back to me. And I remembered how to go with the flow.
The ocean didn't change. But my approach to it did. As a result, my experience playing in the waves dramatically improved.
The same is true for dealing with uncomfortable situations.
Not every interaction we have or situation we encounter will feel comfortable. And that's actually a good thing. The tension creates room for growth and positive change. Without it we would remain stagnant, unevolved and lifeless.
Unfortunately, society has reinforced the desire to seek out comfort and avoid what's uncomfortable. So when feelings of discomfort arise, fear often sets in. This leads to avoiding, burying, numbing, or resisting that which is inevitable.
Ask any woman who's endured pregnancy and birth and she'll confirm that discomfort is a part of the process. We literally can't have life and feel comfortable all the time.
This can be a tricky nuance to navigate as a leader, especially when you care about your people. There's often tension between the desire for people to be happy at work and for everyone to learn and grow individually and collectively. That's because the learning and growing part feel uncomfortable and people don't always like that.
In fact, employees may complain when they're nudged outside their comfort zone.
When a leader hears those complaints, then loosens the reins, or worse, takes the bridle off completely, they might just be doing a disservice to their people. This is especially true when such a reaction is about people pleasing.
Showing genuine care and concern for others doesn't mean removing all discomfort or challenge. A leader knows how to listen to their people's needs, honor their feelings and when to nudge them despite the struggle. The struggle is where growth happens.
Scientists discovered years ago that removing the shell for a baby bird actually causes irrevocable harm that can lead to death. That's because muscles are developed by the effort it takes to be born that aide in its survival. That said, a hatchling won't survive without support.
A leader discerns when someone needs to be encouraged to persevere through the struggle versus when they need more direct assistance to succeed.
Retreats may challenge team members to go outside of their comfort zone. It's a safe environment for them to practice new communication skills, and an opportunity to challenge them to speak up where before they were silent. They might not have liked the discomfort but if people are expected to contribute their ideas, it becomes a norming setting experience. It leads to greater engagement, which is a great thing.
This is a time where embracing the discomfort results in growth for the betterment of individuals and the team as a whole.
Contrast that with operating heavy machinery. You wouldn't want to just toss a new employee the keys and say, "Have at it!" This is a time where appropriate training and support is essential for their success. In this instance, pushing them through the discomfort without adequate support creates unnecessary risks that are easily mitigated.
Wholehearted leaders navigate this dance with awareness and intention. They are committed to providing the training and support that will enable their people to succeed while also challenging them to grow in new ways. Part of how they are able to distinguish between these different circumstances is by being aware of their own thoughts and assumptions.
We all make up stories and ascribe meaning to the situations we experience. Those stories are built upon past experiences, hopes, and fears. They do not provide all the insight needed for taking rational action. Instead, they offer a sliver of the whole picture.
A wise leader is aware of those stories and actively deconstructs them. Gaining valuable perspective and getting a firmer footing in reality. Garnering greater clarity and more effectively setting expectations.
While it would be nice for a new hire to be as productive as a seasoned one, it's an unreasonable expectation. Similarly, wanting to be liked by team members is a misguided priority.
Being a wholehearted leader isn't about being liked. It's about doing what's right to accomplish the vision and support your people. This means making hard decisions that aren't always popular and nudging people outside their comfort zones for the sake of growth.
What's amazing is that such choices, along with adequate communication, result in greater respect and trust.
Being a leader isn't about having authority or power. It's a matter of choice. People choose to follow because they respect you, they believe in the work you're doing and they want to be a part of making the vision happen.
This is why it's so important for leaders to engage in the give and take with people. To listen for and work with the discomfort, not against it. And by all means, don't eliminate it. It is the foundation for what's possible.
I could have let my initial discomfort keep me from going into the ocean this summer. Instead I worked through it and had a really enjoyable time at the beach as a result.
What's possible when you work with others to move through the discomfort?