Andy Molinsky on Reaching Beyond the Comfort Zone: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 12th, 2017 by bobmorris

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology. He is the author of the new book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence, published by Penguin Random House (January 2017)

Andy received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and M.A. in Psychology from Harvard University. He also holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in International Affairs from Brown University. He writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review, is a columnist at Inc.com, Psychology Today, and was recently named a LinkedIn Top Voice for 2016.

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For those who have not as yet read Reach, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

To me the most head-snapping revelation was how comfortable people were talking with me about very personal and challenging issues about stepping outside their comfort zones. People told poignant stories and I was honored they trusted me with this information.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Honestly, it’s very similar to what I envisioned! I want my books to be very user-friendly – something you can pick up, read for a few hours and then take concrete steps to improve your life. I know that ahead of time, and so I structure the writing around the goal.

How is a comfort zone established?

Good question. I think our comfort zones ultimately come from a combination of nature and nurture – from aspects of our innate personalities and then also from how we were raised – in our families, communities, regions, national cultures and so on.

When should people venture outside of their comfort zone?

As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for personal growth and career advancement. In an ideal world, no one would have to stretch beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. But unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. Conflict-avoidant managers need to embrace conflict—or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves. . . introverts need to network . . . self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches . . . and people pleasers need to deliver bad news.

In Leading Change, Jim O’Toole suggests that the strongest resistance to change is cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What do you think?

I agree with the cultural piece for sure, but in my mind, the greatest resistance to change is internal rather than external. It’s the set of psychological roadblocks I talk about in Reach that impede our ability to step outside our comfort zones. For example, we can worry about feeling inauthentic, or incompetent, or unlikeable stepping outside our comfort zones – and when we anticipate feeling this way, it’s unlikely we’ll take the leap.

In the Inferno, Dante reserves the last and worst circle in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. What’s your take on that?

Well, I’m not one to argue with Dante, but I do know that if taking action in a moral crisis entails acting outside your comfort zone, I have empathy (perhaps more than Dante did) for the struggles people face!

When a person ventures out from a comfort zone, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind?

Do’s: Find your source of conviction for taking the leap: something that will push you to do something challenging even if every bone in your body is telling you not to. Also, realize you have more power than you think to “sculpt” a situation to your liking. You can often make minor, but meaningful alterations in the way you approach situations outside your comfort zone that make them much easier than you thought to perform.

Don’t’s: Listen to conventional wisdom about comfort zones. For example, one piece of conventional wisdom is that “all it takes to get outside your comfort zone is taking a leap.” But this saying is quite misleading because few people truly just spontaneously “leap” outside their comfort zones. Rather, any leap we take is typically the product of a great deal of thinking, deliberation, and courage. And when people are told to “just take a leap!” – implying that this is all it takes to step outside your comfort zone – it can feel more demoralizing than inspiring.

What are the defining characteristics of what you characterize as “a deep sense of purpose”?

I find across professions it’s essential to have a deep sense of purpose about why you are acting outside your comfort zone in order to succeed. The “Why” is so critical because it gives you a reason to endure the challenge and the pain and the struggle of doing something you’re likely afraid of. And that “why” needs to be meaningful and motivational. It has to truly mean something to you in order to provide that motivational fuel.

In your opinion, what are the most valuable (albeit potential) benefits of “taking a leap”?

In a way, this is what it really all boils down to. When faced with a challenging situation outside your personal comfort zone, do you take that leap or don’t you? And the reason it’s so critical is because the “leap” is the tipping point. On the other side of taking a leap or trying something you were afraid of, you can make some pretty remarkable discoveries about yourself and the situation you’ve been struggling with. For example, you can discover – and people often do – that the situation you feared isn’t all that fearful as you thought – or, at the very least, is less fearful than you thought. And you might also discover that you’re more capable than you thought. Both very important discoveries!

How best to develop resilience without compromising one’s integrity?

I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. Think of building resilience in the way you’d build a muscle. You want to challenge your abilities, but not strain them. So, the first key is to find “just right” type situations to practice – where you can work on developing and honing your skills – ideally in a challenging, but not too challenging context. You also want to ideally adopt what the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a learning orientation toward mistakes you will make, so you see them as part of skill-building, rather than as evidence of failure. Finally, find a way to nudge yourself to continue trying whatever behavior you’re afraid of. When you have the chance to do something over and over again – even something scary – it loses some of its power over you – and this “desensitization” effect is another key ingredient in the resilience-building process.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Reach will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Think of all the situations you experience preparing for a business career that might be outside your comfort zone: interviewing, pitching and promoting yourself; making small talk with people more experienced than you; finding ways to assert yourself at the organization, in meetings. The list goes on and on. I work with this age group on a very regular basis and I know first-hand the challenges they face in stepping outside their comfort zones.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

People rarely “train” to become a manager. More frequently, you are an outstanding performer in your given specific area and then are promoted to manage people. And then, all of the sudden, the reality of management hits: You need to be capable of making demands and setting limits… of motivating and inspiring… of delivering bad news or tough, critical feedback. You need to manage down and also manage up – and in all these new tasks, functions and roles, you may very well encounter a comfort-zone challenge: I certainly found that to be the case in the research I did for Reach.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

C-level executives often encounter challenges outside their comfort zones too. A recent Harvard Business Review article, for example, indicated that the number one fear among CEO’s wasn’t foreign completion or the economy: it was their own feelings of incompetence; what some have called the “imposter syndrome.” Executives can feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease with many of the exact same situations others struggle with, including public speaking, delivering bad news, and so on. Just because you’re in the C-Suite doesn’t mean you’ve mastered comfort zones!

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

As a CEO of a small-to-midsize company, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. You need to be good at marketing and sales, and operations. You need to do finances, staff your team, and, when necessary lay off or fire your team. You need to deal with conflict. The list goes on and on! And when you think of it – what single individual is possibly capable of all these things? To succeed, you have to be able to grow, learn and develop… which means acting outside your comfort zone.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

I’d like to offer just a few words of advice to people: It’s not easy to step outside your comfort zone, but it’s not rocket science either. I’d love you to check out my book Reach, which is written in a very user-friendly style and it’s a very quick read that you can pick up and apply to your life immediately. And if and when you do, shoot me a line to tell me about your success!

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Andy invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His personal website link

Link to his Amazon page for Reach

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