The widely used phrase, comfort zone, is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a place, situation, or level where someone feels confident and comfortable." It isn't a physical place, though numerous restaurants, bars, and children's camps use the phrase for their names. The phrase is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, it identifies something familiar — a zone — with something less familiar — a psychological or behavioral situation.
That identification is literally incorrect. A zone isn't a psychological space. A zone, again from the dictionary, is "a region or area set off as distinct from surrounding or adjoining parts." It's a contiguous region on a surface, such as the inbounds area of a tennis court, or the Greenwich Mean Time zone, or the territory of New York City.
Using metaphors entails risk. The literally incorrect identification of "zone" with "psychological situation" can distort thinking about the psychological space. Here are four issues for which the metaphor can cause muddled thinking.
- Dealing with discomfort
- The comfort zone isn't a "region or area" distinct from its surrounds. For example, when presenting to your team, you might be in your comfort zone, until your company's CEO enters the room and takes a seat. Clearly, the comfort zone wasn't the conference room; nor was it presenting in that room. In this case, the comfort zone's definition must include the audience. Thinking of the comfort zone as an area, when it's actually an audience roster, can make dealing with the discomfort more difficult.
- Taking responsibility for growth
- People talk about "breaking out of your comfort zone," or "pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone," as if something external holds one there. Constraining forces might indeed exist, but they're usually internal. Regarding these forces as external shifts the responsibility for making a change to someone else (or something else). That responsibility is ours alone; it cannot be shifted.
- Feeling a false sense of security
- When we People talk about "breaking
out of your comfort zone,"
or "pushing the boundaries
of your comfort zone," as
if something external
holds one therefeel that we're in our comfort zone, regarding it as a "zone" can create a false sense of security. Real "zones" — that is, regions or areas — are places that persist over time. Zones aren't usually subject to sudden change. Situations are. Situations can be comfortable in one moment and uncomfortable — even unsafe — in the next. To grasp how quickly situations can change, we must think of situations as situations.
- Seeking real security
- When we think of "seeking a comfort zone," the metaphor compels us to seek a place that's permanently comfortable. This is an objective different from seeking a situation that's comfortable for now, or for some other short period. So we end up looking for something possibly more difficult to find than what we actually need.
- See "Metaphors and Their Abuses," for more about the power and risks of metaphors.
Love the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenSAVbdUDZXAGheecrner@ChacswufIsTsOVvrLCCfoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Give Me the Bad News First
- I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad
news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if
we get the bad news first.
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Understanding these last three
of the nine fallacies of project management helps reduce risk and enhances your ability to complete
- Some Limits of Root Cause Analysis
- Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has
been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving
organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 25: Workplace Memes
- Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
- And on November 1: Risk Creep: I
- Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTCJBlEqRMetXIplKner@ChacySsjRbKBmscdzJFzoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.