Stepping into career discomfort in today’s ever-changing world

September 11, 2020
by
James Goh

In today’s environment, the pandemic has changed the way we live, work and play drastically. As we try to cope with all the changes that are happening around us, learning how to work outside our comfort zone becomes more important than ever.

As humans, it is normal for us to feel inadequate sometimes, and unwilling to take the step outside of our comfort zone. In fact, when faced with uncertainty, we often tend towards risk avoidance behaviour, creating mental barriers to trick our minds and convince ourselves to avoid novel activities at all costs.

In a research study done by Harvard University, it was found that people generally avoid going beyond their comfort zone due to 3 main reasons; feelings of inauthenticity, feelings of incompetence, and the need to be liked.

It is my hope that by sharing on this topic, alongside some tips on how to challenge ourselves to step outside our career comfort zones, I can help people understand how to better cope with the novel and challenging situations that we face in the months ahead.


Feeling of inauthenticity


Humans are not perfect, and we often hold high expectations of what we should be at work. This creates feelings of inauthenticity, causing us to question our abilities, and doubt if we indeed deserve to be in a position of success.

This forms the basis of a phenomenon termed as the imposter syndrome; the idea that one succeeds due to sheer luck, and doesn’t deserve to be in their position. For example, a newly promoted manager may face feelings of apprehension, not being sure if they deserve to take on the increased responsibility, and doubting their personal ability to perform in the role.

This thinking creates pressure within themselves that can hold them back from attempting anything new and novel, keeping it “safe” out of the desire to remain authentic, and fearful that they would expose themselves as a fraud if anything happens as a result of their decisions.

However, when faced with such feelings of inauthenticity, what individuals need to realise is that they are not alone in this. A paper published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science showed that independent of one’s ability, an estimated 70% of people experience feelings of inauthenticity at some point in their life.

This is corroborated by the many personal accounts of famous people whom we know to be highly capable, yet who still doubt themselves.

For example, in an interview in 2013, renowned actress Emma Watson mentioned that “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going: ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.’”

We must learn to understand that these feelings are part and parcel of life, and should never become an excuse for us to limit ourselves at work or in our careers. One tip individuals can employ in unfamiliar situations to overcome this imposter syndrome is to make use of a prop to ease themselves into uncomfortable environments.

These props could come in all forms, shapes and sizes.

It could be a lucky item that makes you feel more confident, or even practical objects that serve functional purposes. For example, a friend of mine who is often socially awkward in networking events decided to bring along a simple metal straw each time she attends a formal function.

She uses it at these events as a conversation starter, sharing her story as an environment advocate, and how she is doing her part to reduce waste on the planet.

The fact that she has something authentic to her to talk about each time she meets new people helps her breakaway from any awkwardness she feels, and provides her the confidence she needs to constantly enter such uncomfortable environments.


Feelings of incompetence


A second common barrier preventing people from stepping outside their comfort zone at work is the feeling of incompetence, often leading individuals to refuse new things. In addition, rather than acknowledging these feelings, individuals often choose to further justify their sense of incompetence by layering even more excuses, in an attempt to convince themselves more definitely that they are not good enough.

For instance, they might say things like “Thousands of people have failed while trying to do this, how can I ever succeed?”, or “I have never been talented at anything, and so why should I be able to do well in this”.

However, the fact is, the more we are is unwilling to try, the more we begin to realise that we are not moving forward, further aggravating any feelings of incompetence. These feelings in turn discourages us further, and inevitably force us into a constant negative spiral that repeatedly reinforces itself.

This is exactly why people find themselves in a state of stagnation after years of doing the same thing, and refusing to try anything new.

The fear they have of not being good enough prevented them from confronting novel situations that might have actually driven their careers towards their goals, and this eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in them not growing in pace with the professional landscape around them.

It is important for us to constantly challenge ourselves despite feelings of incompetence, and allow for ourselves to go beyond what we are comfortable with to ensure we constantly stimulate our career path through learning and surprising experiences that we can gain insights and knowledge from, that we might not otherwise have gathered.

One strategy I personally find useful in coping with such feelings is to ask myself what I think the perfect scenario, as well as the worst-case scenario would look like.

By doing this, I can often see that it is unrealistic to expect a perfect performance, while at the same time understand that the worst-case scenario is not all that bad.

In some sense, individuals who have thought through the above, would find themselves entering these uncomfortable work zones in somewhat a “psychological middle ground”. In this state, it motivates us to give things a try knowing that things would not go as bad as we think. Y

et at the same time, we will not hold unreasonable expectations about our work performance, and thus do not feel threatened even if we do not perform perfectly.


Need to be liked


The third and final mental barrier that we create for ourselves in our careers stems from the innate need for us to feel a sense of belonging, and to be liked by others. Therefore, we constantly convince ourselves that it is important for others to see us favourably, and we avoid trying anything new that might cause us to lose favour among our Colleagues.


Such behaviour often comes with implications on business innovation and opportunities. Years of organisational behaviour research has shown us that the willingness of employees and staff to challenge existing norms, and explore new ideas forms the key to an innovative culture.

Such a culture keeps the company on its toes, and allowing for it to stay agile in the face of evolving needs within the market.

However, if employees begin to avoid standing up and providing a point of view simply because they do not know how to cope with personal feelings of needing to be liked, this lowers the effectiveness of the company as a whole, and reduces the organisations ability to pivot when needed.  

Furthermore, this behaviour has serious consequences for the individuals career in the long term as well. The need to always feel liked by others, and thus constantly hiding our personal identity negatively affects one’s mental well-being drastically.

In a study published this year by the California Institute of Behavioural Neurosciences and Psychology, it was found that in an attempt for teenagers to appear likeable to their peers on social media, they are inevitably aggravating their mental health, and increasing their vulnerability to mental illness such as depression.

In today’s working environment, these potential mental health issues can be more detrimental as we are often working through work from home arrangements, and thus often isolated by ourselves within our home office.

As such, it is highly important for us to understand this phenomenon, and constantly monitor, and reflect on our behaviour, to avoid shutting ourselves out from trying new things. One useful tool for reflection is the exploration of why we are doing what we do.

By reflecting on the ‘why’, we help find the root source of conviction that motivates us, and justify the reason behind what we do. If we find self-reflection difficult, we can always reach to find someone else you trust to discuss and talk through this topic with them.

Conclusion

It is never easy for us to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, even when we know our career satisfaction is at stake.

However, if we are able to identify the factors that are preventing us from exploring new things, and actively employ strategies to help us overcome these “barriers”, we can prepare ourselves to adapt and face any unknown that comes our way at work.

This is more important than ever in this post pandemic world that is constantly evolving.

By understanding how to navigate the discomfort that comes with novelty, we can give ourselves an edge over others, and would definitely benefit in future success.

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