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Work Attitudes

Break out of your comfort zone – or see your career suffer Add to ...

Recently, one of my clients told me how upset she was about a colleague’s disturbing behaviour at an important department meeting. Her co-worker, my client said, attacked her, interrupted speakers, and generally acted obnoxiously. After the meeting, my client called her on this.

The co-worker’s defence? She wasn’t “comfortable in meetings.”

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“What about our comfort?” my client asked me. Disliking meetings not should be a free pass, she said.

Sometimes people have bad days, but her colleague’s behaviour was egregious. Worse, she was unapologetic, believing that her own comfort level was sufficient justification for upsetting everyone else.

A few years ago it was almost a cliché to say, “I want to stretch out of my comfort zone.” Unfortunately, it seems the new cliché is now, “I am not comfortable doing that.”

Obviously, people should not tolerate exploitative working conditions or work that makes them feel horrible. But when it comes to simply feeling uncomfortable, my take is that people are overly attuned to their feelings. All this emotional temperature-taking impedes their careers, particularly when they use “comfort levels” to explain away bad behaviour, or as the gold standard to determine what they are, and are not, prepared to do.

For example, I recently pitched an acquaintance’s son to a client as a potential hire. I wanted to help the son, who had been unemployed for more than a year. And I thought he would be a good match for my client, who expressed interest. But when I told the young man that my client was expecting a call from him, he said, “I don’t feel comfortable calling someone I don’t know. It stresses me out.” He never called.

Who is most vulnerable to experiencing discomfort? According to a recent Ipsos Reid survey, based on self-reported answers, young workers suffer from the most stress, reporting “excessive anxiety” and “feeling overwhelmed.” But I wonder: Are young workers really more stressed than their older counterparts? Is what they are dealing with worse than anyone else’s load?

True, many young people face a tough job market, struggle to pay off student debt and handle conflicting work and school demands, all challenges their boomer parents may not have faced when they entered the work force. But older workers have their own challenges – job insecurity, juggling kids and elder care responsibilities, age discrimination, and so on.

And what about Gen X university graduates who found few opportunities when they entered the workplace in the turbulent 1990s, a time of massive organizational downsizing? Many ended up cobbling together a living in service jobs. But that generation has been described as resilient and possessing a can-do attitude; their pluckiness has been attributed precisely to the employment obstacles they had to overcome.

In an informal experiment, over the past few weeks I recorded how often people used phrases such as, “I am not comfortable doing …” or, “I am so stressed out.” I heard these expressions much more frequently among young people as they explained why they could not do something such as networking, or gave their reaction to meeting deadlines.

Blame their parents, at least in part. Unduly preoccupied with their kids’ happiness, comfort and mental wellness throughout their childhood, parents now extend that emotional monitoring to their kids’ work lives. In parents’ minds, feeling uncomfortable or stressed is something that must be curtailed.

That is why so many parents take children in their 20s and early 30s on vacations, saying their kids are “so stressed out at work.” Similarly parents who are supporting an adult child who has been unemployed for a long time explain that their kid couldn’t take an interim service or temp job, saying their kid “wouldn’t want to do that.”

There used to be a bravado about coping with stress and too many demands (“It’s tough, but look at me – I can do it”). Now it seems people compete about how stressed they feel.

Are people more likely to self-identify as feeling stressed today than in the past? Maybe they are indeed more stress-sensitive. A few veteran grade-school teachers have told me that they noticed a shift in pupils’ ability to cope with difficulties in the mid- to late-1980s: Students started to seem more needy and sensitive, and less resilient.

Whether or not young workers feel stress more acutely than older people do, according to my clients they tend to act on it differently. In response to a difficult work demand, for example, both an older and younger worker might think, “This sucks.” But while an older worker might appraise the demand as something that must be complied with, however grudgingly, a younger worker might think the stressfulness of the demand is sufficient justification for ignoring the request.

Doing something that makes you uncomfortable may not come as second nature, but it isn’t enough reason to keep yourself out of the fray. I would like to see more people, especially those in their 20s, do something that makes them feel slightly ill at ease. People lose their edge when they are too absorbed with being comfortable. Self-satisfaction is not a recipe for success.

So here’s an idea for an upcoming New Year’s resolution. At the expense of reverting to an old cliché, do something that makes you uncomfortable.

Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: bmoses.com

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