Marcia Reynolds on discomfort in the workplace: Part 1 of a second interview by Bob Morris

ReynoldsDr. Marcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning LLC, works with clients around the world who seek to develop effective leaders. She understands organizational cultures, what blocks communication and innovation, and what is needed to bring people together for better results. She has coached leaders, delivered leadership, coaching and emotional intelligence programs, and spoken at conferences for clients in 34 countries. She has also presented at many universities including Harvard Kennedy School and Cornell University,

Prior to starting her own business, Marcia’s greatest success came as a result of designing the employee development program for a semiconductor manufacturing company facing bankruptcy. Within three years, the company turned around and became the #1 stock market success in the United States when they went public in 1993.

Excerpts from her books Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman, and her latest, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs have appeared in many places including Harvard Management Review,,, Psychology Today, and The Wall Street Journal and she has appeared on ABC World News.

Marcia’s doctoral degree is in organizational psychology with a research emphasis on the challenges and needs of high-achievers. She also holds two masters degrees in education and communications.

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Morris: Before discussing The Discomfort Zone, a few general questions. First, to what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Reynolds: I am grateful for the combination of significant life experiences with my education. My degrees have given me a deeper understanding of the value of my experiences, including the failures, disappointments, and choices that could have destroyed my life at a young age. In addition to better understanding human behavior, including my own, my education gives me the gifts of analysis and compassion. The combination of street and formally acquired knowledge helped me to be a good coach and teacher for my clients. Now with years of experience in helping leaders improve their emotional intelligence and communication skills, I was able to write the book, The Discomfort Zone, bringing all that I know together to help people have powerful conversations that make a difference in each other’s lives.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Reynolds: There is nothing more satisfying than discovering solutions to our most difficult problems on our own. Yet when we are stuck seeing things in one way, it is very difficult to see outside of our boxes. Leaders who master the skills of helping others think through their blind spots, attachments, and resistance are not only effective, they are the most remembered and revered.

In the book, Synchronicity, Joseph Jaworski said the most successful leaders are those who participate in helping others create new realities. The leader engages in conversations that bring to light a person’s filters and frames. When the factors that frame the meaning of a situation are revealed, the view of what is true changes and becomes clear.

Think about it. If I were to ask you to recall someone who changed your life by something they said, who comes to mind? My guess is that they said something that challenged you to be more and do more, more than you thought you could on your own. In response, you might not have jumped for joy in the moment. But you always remember the leader who saw you, heard you, and helped you to see yourself and the world in a bigger way.

These are Discomfort Zone conversations, where new ideas are birthed. The moment might be uncomfortable, but in this moment, profound and lasting learning happens. And the person realizes that in the end, they discovered the solutions themselves.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Reynolds: I do think curiosity is underrated, that curiosity is the predecessor of great discoveries whether we are learning about the world or about something in ourselves. In Discomfort Zone conversations, the leader listens with curiosity, listening from a “that’s odd” or “tell me more” perspective. Then when they reflect back what they hear, the person could have an epiphany but they are just as likely to respond, “Of course, I should have recognized this long ago” which could lead to just as important of a shift as the epiphany. Curiosity over what is odd, doesn’t make sense, or irregular is a great start to new discoveries.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Reynolds: Drucker is correct but when we have our heads down, focused on our work, we rarely have the perspective or courage to step back and see that persistence could be the enemy of progress. According to Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is also not our habit to slow down and consider all the possibilities in front of us. That is why having a coach or a leader trained in using a coaching approach can help us assess what we are doing where we won’t or can’t do this for ourselves. The leaders who know how to asks the questions—with curiosity, not negative judgment—that make us stop and question ourselves help us to be more effective. In the end, they help us grow our mental capacity as well. The best leaders are the ones who develop people’s minds as well as their skills.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Reynolds: I agree that the genius of the community is much more expansive than what is possible by any one person. Whereas one person can have a new awareness that reframes a situation in a new way, the compound nature of the group making discoveries together can be remarkable. I’ve seen this happen with group coaching. The coach just facilitates the team thinking and creating together. The team can also take apart decisions more thoroughly, which leads to “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves” much more adeptly than one mind trying to discern what is right and best to do.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Reynolds: In my experience, people are given the steps and reasons for making a change, and possibly an inspiring vision, but they aren’t allowed to express the normal feelings they experience when asked to do something they didn’t initiate. People don’t resist change; they resist changes they are forced to make. If the leader can be comfortable in inviting and accepting people’s complaints, they often hear why they feel afraid or angry. Whether the circumstances that are triggering someone’s emotions are real or assumed without out facts, they are real in the mind of the person. The leader who can help people put their fears, disappointments, frustrations, and thoughts of betrayal on the table where they can objectively sort through and discover what is true together is the one who can help move his organization forward with courage and even hope.

Emotions have the power of fueling or killing change initiatives. It is the leaders who can encourage conversations around emotions, their triggers, and what other perspectives are possible who ensure continual growth of an organization.

Unfortunately, they don’t teach these skills in MBA programs. I’m not even sure emotional intelligence is a staple yet, much less coaching skills. So then I get these leaders who are years into their careers in my leadership classes still very confused about how to best communicate with people.

Humans make up organizations, not plans and flow charts. Leadership is evolving, but as my boss used to tell me, “It will never happen as quickly as you want it to.” So I will keep teaching and writing books to do my part in helping us all make these important shifts in bringing a more holistic sense of humanity into our workplace conversations.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Reynolds: I think the biggest challenge for CEO’s and organizations is having a full leadership pipeline. Everything is changing so fast and people leave jobs more frequently that succession planning is critical but often ignored. This means developing minds, not just skills. For the C-suite, I think their greatest asset is having a leadership pipeline of mentally developed leaders. When people are promoted for their technical capability, it is always hit-or-miss in terms of how effective they will be as leaders. If leaders at all levels, from the bottom up, actively develop people’s minds as well as their skills, then the organization has a true leadership pipeline. The greatest challenge, and asset, for a CEO will be to have all the leaders, at all levels, know what they need to be successful as a leader at the next level they aspire to be so they are ready to step into the position when called on.

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To read my first interview of Marcia, please click here.

Marcia cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website

To go directly to download resources and read about The Discomfort Zone, please click here.

You can rate your ability to deal with discomfort by clicking here.

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