Comfort Kills Great Leadership


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.

I worked in the financial services industry for over 27-years. That industry struggles to break out of the status quo of the same look, background, gender, and interests – you name it.  I repeatedly heard comments like “the client would be more comfortable working with a male” or “if you don’t golf, you won’t go anywhere.” Overlooking people of color and women supported the status quo– they were too different. This belief that capability and talent are secondary to feeling comfortable permeated the industry.

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 the status quo, stale, and not learning or growing. It sounds like a formula for feeling free of stress as you approach a cliff in the competitive market.

Hey, I’m not knocking feeling 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 diverse 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 more efficiently. Homogenous teams may feel easier or more comfortable, but studies show that easy is terrible 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. They found that 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 Biases That Punish Racially Diverse Teams.”. The article summarizes a series of experiments where people saw 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 tests show people believed that racially diverse teams had more relationship conflicts than the homogeneous ones—even though the actual 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.

Dig Deeper

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?

Will, what makes you uncomfortable challenge what you do or how the team thinks? Could this uncomfortable state be temporary as you make a consistent 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 with vibrant and diverse leaders, and be uncomfortable!

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