Leadership Game Changer: Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortability


Imagine trying to sleep suspended thousands of feet off the ground on nothing but a metal frame suspended by ropes.  This is how big wall climbers do it when attacking multi-day rock climbing ascents. Now imagine needing to do that as part of your job in order to drive leadership success.

Because you do.

OK, well not literally.  But you may be surprised at how much successful leadership and sleeping in metal mountain climbing cradles have in common.  Most notably: they both require a comfort with uncomfortability.

Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortability

Uncomfortability is the ability to manage and continue to progress forward in spite of trying or anxiety-causing conditions.  For rock climbers, uncomfortability might be sleeping mid-climb or slowing down the rate of progress to find the right footing.  For those of us in leadership positions, uncomfortability may occur when we are asked to manage outside of our strengths or deal with organizational uncertainty or transition.

An area many people struggle with is uncomfortability around growth and development.  Climbers and leaders alike set goals for themselves and become demotivated when it takes longer or is a less straight route to accomplishing them. In short: development can often be an uncomfortable process.

But what we know is that growth occurs at about 4% beyond our current ability - whether our ability is scaling a mega cliff or motivating a team. So being able to develop a process for continually pushing ourselves - and pushing ourselves through uncomfortability - will allow for our optimal development and in fact be a game changer for our success.

Cultivating a Mindset for Uncomfortability

When it comes to examining uncomfortability and how we approach development, looking at our mental approach is paramount. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of psychology, has spent extensive time researching and highlighted two differing mental approaches when it comes to skill acquisition and development. These are the fixed and growth mindset.

What she found was that the most successful individuals have a key difference in their approach to development. They have embraced the growth mindset, which is a belief in that skill can be developed over time, rather than the fixed mindset, which focuses on believing individuals are imbued within innate talents. Those that held the growth mindset were seen as to embrace challenges more than their counterparts, and more importantly, were continually willing to take more risks in terms of seeing their capabilities.

Due to this, those with the growth mindset have two key advantages over those with a fixed mindset. They understand their limits more and they’re willing to push beyond those limits to illicit growth. What the growth mindset gives us is a different perspective on development. It allows us to view challenge as an opportunity to grow, rather than an opportunity to fail. Those climbers can sleep on that wall because they view it from that perspective. When we see those photos we think, “I could die” – we’re focused on the failure. They instead see an opportunity for another challenge that will lead towards growth.

Building a Tolerance for Uncomfortability

Here at Cleaver, we’ve coined a term for describing what the best developers have imparted in their development process: we call it a tolerance for uncomfortability, and it’s an ability to essentially learn to feel comfortable in situations where we don’t feel comfortable.

To tip the challenge/skills ratio (e.g. the balance between a challenge we’re facing and the skills by which we have to overcome it) in favor towards growth, we need to be consistently hitting that “4% more than current ability” window. That is the zone just past what we know we can do, but not so far as what we know we can’t do. We’re being strained to do just a bit more than we currently can, but not so much as to overwhelm us. To foster continual development, we need to hit this range as frequently as possible.

So, we can leverage the growth mindset to provide the motivation to face more challenges, and through trying to habituate a tolerance for uncomfortability, we’ll become more and more comfortable with pushing our current limits, so much so that it becomes part of our everyday routine. This is when our development will blossom and sleeping on the wall of a mountain will illustrate how far we’ve come, rather than how close to failure we may seem.

Photo by TMSean courtesy of Flickr