When I told my team that I wanted us to produce sunscreen, I’m sure some people thought I was crazy. After all, we were a successful beverage company. What did any of us know about the skincare business?
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” Entering a new market took everyone at my business out of our collective comfort zone, but it forced us to learn new things, expand our skill-sets and eventually launch a great new product.
I believe that it’s my duty as a leader to ensure my team spends enough time in a state of “optimal anxiety.” This is a psychological term used to describe how getting out of cruise control and feeling under pressure can increase performance. Anyone who has played competitive sports will know that you need a certain amount of nervous energy to be at your best.
If you want to stretch your team and take them where they may not want to go, here are my five tips.
1. Start small
Optimal anxiety is the sweet spot for better performance, but you have to be careful: too much stress can have a detrimental effect. That’s why it’s good to start small and test how each individual steps out of their comfort zone.
Ask someone to take charge of an internal meeting that you would usually lead. If a team presents a tried and trusted plan, have them explore new ideas to push their strategy further. Nudge people to go against their usual instincts, like urging a naturally cautious person to consider a riskier option.
By starting small, you’ll discover who copes well with new challenges and may be ready to go even further next time.
2. Have clear goals
Last year, I completed the 13.8-mile climb of The Base of the Towers in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine mountain range. It was a real challenge that took me completely out of my hiking comfort zone, but as each step got harder and harder, the simple goal of just getting to the top kept me going.
When people are clear about the end goal of a challenging project, it’s easier to motivate them. A fuzzy purpose can be demotivating when the going gets tough and leave them wondering if it’s worth all the anxiety and pressure.
Setting clear and simple targets will help people visualize the end result and stay focused on what they need to do to get there.
3. Give them a mission
My company’s mission is to make products that satisfy and delight consumers while enabling them to be healthier and happier. Making this clear to the people who work for me gives them a greater sense of purpose than simply selling bottled water. It also helps make sense of us producing a sunscreen and gives my employees additional impetus to overcome the challenges involved.
When people are passionate about what they do, they’re more willing to push themselves into areas where they’re not comfortable. My own desire to make a difference in the world helps me remain in that state of optimal anxiety without tipping over into completely stressed-out.
Give your team a sense of purpose and that mission will sustain them when they’re outside their comfort zone.
4. Be supportive
When people are first out of comfort zone, they’ll usually need a lot of help and encouragement. Whenever I take my team where they may not want to go, I make sure not to abandon them there by having regular check-ins and prioritizing their emails and messages.
But the extent of your support is also a balancing act. You’re not properly pushing people if you continually give them all the answers. I try to provide guidance and moral support without completely solving my team’s problems.
Make time for support in the beginning, and your team will eventually get to a place where they don’t rely on you as much.
5. Accept occasional failure
It’s always great to cook that family favorite you’ve prepared a hundred times before. There’s a reason it’s called comfort food! But it’s also fun to play around with new ingredients and techniques, even if it may occasionally result in an inedible mess and a phone call to your local take-out restaurant.
You can’t meet every challenge, especially not the first time. When you’re pushing your team, it’s important they know that failure is not the end of the world. Otherwise, the perceived consequences of not getting it right can turn optimal anxiety into stress and ever-diminishing returns on performance.
By accepting that people will occasionally fail when they try something new, you’ll allow them the freedom to win big.
An optimal mix of comfort and anxiety
Being in your comfort zone isn’t inherently bad. It’s good to dip back in there regularly, so you’re not living in a constant state of anxiety. Not everyone thrives with anxiety, and that’s also ok. Every business needs steady, dependable performers as well as risk-takers.
But to achieve greatness, you need to lead enough people on your team to where they may not want to go. It won’t be easy, but when you achieve that state of optimal anxiety, the results are worth the effort.