A leader making business decisions based on being comfortable is like a couch potato trying to run a marathon. A comfortable leader will always underperform in a competitive environment. A comfortable team will likely feel good but miss opportunities.
In more than 27 years in the commercial insurance industry working with mid-sized to jumbo domestic and international companies, I have repeatedly heard comments like “the client would be more comfortable working with a male.” This belief that capability and talent are secondary to feeling comfortable permeated the business.
What is comfortable? Merriam-Webster defines comfortable as “enjoying contentment and security,” or “free from vexation or doubt,” or “free from stress or tension.” In business, comfortable is status quo, stale, and not learning or growing. Sounds like a formula for feeling free of stress as you approach a cliff in the competitive market.
Hey, I’m not knocking comfortable. I like a cozy pair of slippers or a great meal as much as the next person. But in leadership, being comfortable is being one step away from extinction. Leaders need to look at why we weigh comfort so heavily when being comfortable means we are not stretching or growing and we are likely making decisions that limit our opportunities.
Isn’t feeling uncomfortable a sign that something might be wrong?
Not usually. It is natural to gravitate to the familiar or to what is homogeneous to us. Examples include visual traits such as age, race, and gender. Let’s face it, when someone looks different or comes from a different background, that difference might initially feel uncomfortable. But that uncomfortable feeling doesn’t mean there is something wrong.
Comfortable ≠ Better Performance
Some believe that a homogeneous group will work in a more efficient manner. Homogenous teams may feel easier or more comfortable, but studies show that easy is bad for performance. In a September 2016 HBR article titled “Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable—and That’s Why They Perform Better,” the authors cite studies showing that individuals on homogeneous teams perceived that collaboration flowed smoothly, giving a false sense of progress. In fact, the diverse teams had better outcomes, precisely because it was less comfortable. The heterogeneous teams arrived at the correct solution more than twice as often as the homogeneous teams.
Comfort Bias Blocks High Performance
Numerous studies show that moving away from homogeneous comfort drives better decision making. The mere presence of diversity can lead groups to work harder, share unique perspectives, be more open to new ideas, and perform better, per a February 2016 HBR article. The article summarizes a series of experiments where people were shown transcripts with pictures of homogeneous or racially diverse teams. The transcripts were the same; the only difference was the racial mix of the teams. The racially diverse teams were perceived as having more relationship conflicts than the homogeneous ones—even though the objective content of the group interaction was the same. This experiment was repeated with additional types of diversity, and it showed there was a clear bias against diverse teams.
If you find yourself ready to say “I’m not comfortable…”
STOP! Ask yourself, Why am I using comfort as an excuse? Is it merely a reflex to protect the familiar, or is there something relevant about this uncomfortable feeling? Is this uncomfortable feeling based on a difference in personality styles?
Will what makes you uncomfortable challenge what you do or how the team thinks? Could this uncomfortable state be temporary as you make relevant effort and apply yourself?
If yes, GO forward! What is making you uncomfortable is likely a good thing. Dig in and revel in being uncomfortable. Move forward being uncomfortable. As you do this, your comfort level will change, so keep pushing it.
Leaders, let’s get stronger. Move away from what is comfortable, move toward making better decisions, and be uncomfortable!