Introduction: What is Good about Discomfort?
The author opens with an anecdote about leaving a company, and an executive with whom she though she had a very difficult and contentious relationship expressed dismay at her departure. Their roles within the organizations had inherently put them in conflict, and there had been many uncomfortable conversations between them.
But uncomfortable conversations can be very productive - this is a phenomenon called "constructive conflict" in which differences are resolved to pave the way for more effective collaboration. If these difficult conversations do not take place, then the differences are never entirely resolved.
To make any change requires disruption of the current culture, and disruption is always an uncomfortable situation in which people tend to defend the comfortable habits to which they have become accustomed. And so, they must be moved from their "comfort zone" into a "discomfort zone" just as there must be demolition before there can be a reconstruction.
Those who prefer superficial harmony steadfastly avoid entering into this discomfort zone, and as a result they fail to achieve their goals. In order to be effective, leaders must learn to deal with discomfort, even creating it when it is necessary, in order to lay the ground for change.
What Is the Discomfort Zone?
One of the most important functions of the human mind is to help us make sense of the world around us: in our minds, we create representations that becomes our own perception of reality. Normally, this is quite positive and healthy. The problem arises when the mind attempts to fill in the gaps in understanding in a manner that does not correspond to actual reality. The total of our perception includes both fact and fiction, and even the facts are based on our limited experience and from an individual perspective.
Moreover, the mental representation of reality attempts to be accurate and consistent and resists the notion that it may be incorrect. For example, when someone asks you why you did something, you answer immediately - but this extemporaneous answer is often inaccurate. You may not remember the reasons that were in your mind at the time, if you were ever fully conscious of all the reasons that influenced your decision. But the mind fabricates a plausible set of motivations that are consistent with the mental representation of reality.
And to conserve energy, the mind makes assumptions about reality that may be inaccurate. In so doing, it often reinterprets facts that seem to be of little consequence to create a consistent conception. This happens automatically, and people fall into habitual patterns of decision-making.
To change the pattern, these habits must be disrupted: the perception of reality needs to be changed. The problem is: the mind doesn't want to be changed. Its preference is to maintain its current settings and do what it usually does, generally because the habitual patterns were established as habit because they have been successful in the past. It is admittedly a binary perspective, but our instinct is to regard anything different to what has been successful as something that will be "not successful" in future.
Emotion is the first line of defense for the human mind. Before we think about something, we feel it, and our thinking is generally inclined to defend its ingrained successful habits against any suggestion to the contrary. This different choice constitutes a threat to success, and a threat activates very basic emotions that trigger the fight/flight mechanisms that defend against threats. When dealing with ideas, the physical fight/flight becomes resistance or avoidance, which is then justified by the reasoning processes.
This is not to say that the human mind is incapable of change - of pausing to consider the new information, and questioning the habitual ways of thinking. However, that is not the default response. We generally reconsider our way of thinking when we recognize something is different about the current situation - but our first inclination is to match the current situation to experience and dismiss the cues that would enable us to recognize the differences.
In order to learn, change, or grow, it is necessary to have these instances of uncertainty - and instead of automatically falling back on habitual reactions, to pause and question whether these habitual reactions are appropriate to the situation at hand and consider whether there might be better options. This requires setting aside the initial emotional reaction to be guided by a more rational process.
This can be uncomfortable - and when other people are involved, the discomfort is generally mutual. What results from this is a conversation in which both parties are attempting to defend their habitual patterns of thought - with the goal of not changing their own perspective, but forcing the other person to enter into their established comfort zone.
In power relationships, such as a conflict between a superior and subordinate, the superior can easily overpower the subordinate, using extrinsic threats to force the other party to abandon their way of thinking and adopt the superior's. This is why managers who are insistent on controlling the behavior of their subordinates are highly efficient at gaining compliance, but highly ineffective at achieving results because they have excluded the expertise and perspective of an individual who is often more informed than themselves.
When capitulation occurs, no progress is made. A person can change their behavior without changing their beliefs, and this results in temporary compliance, tinged by resentment. They may cooperate "this time" but seek ways to proceed by their own preferences in a manner that avoids detection by the other party.
Progress is only made when a genuine change takes place in their way of thinking. When this occurs in a conflict between two people, it is generally marked by an epiphany. Once person may say "I see what you mean" or "Ah, now I understand" or they have the sudden realization of a "new and amazing" approach that had not occurred to them before. Both of these are harbingers of change: the person has begun to recognize the need to reconsider their habitual mode of thought.
And often, these kinds of conflicts are necessary. Because we are creatures of habit, our tendency is to act in a way that is consistent with out existing mind-set. Questioning your own perceptions and beliefs is as biologically difficult as trying to tickle yourself - the mind recognizes that the challenge to its way of thinking is not real, and rather quickly justifies its habitual patterns. It takes another person to be persistent, wearing down the automated mental defenses, and preventing the mind from retreating from the discomfort of uncertainty into familiar territory.
Retaining Top Talent
The "top talent" of any organization are the individuals who solve problems and suggest improvements. However, these activities have prerequisites: to solve a problem, a person must first discover that a problem exists; to make an improvement, a person must first have the sense that the current way is not efficient or effective. That is, they must recognize an obstacle and feel disappointed and dissatisfied.
The problem is that many managers do not cope will with dissatisfied employees - they want them to be satisfied with the status quo, and to do as they are bidden without complaint, and to accept the inefficiencies of the current culture and processes without making an objection. Their first inclination is to assume all is well, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is a problem person - not a person who sees a problem.
And so, they wish to lash down the loose cannon on their team, or simply get rid of the person who is making noise. This means that they do not fix the problem or even acknowledge that the problem exists - and conveniently carry on with business as usual, leaving the matter to fester.
(EN: This practice is also mentioned in other sources, using the metaphor of "shooting the messenger" or, more aptly, ignoring the canary in the coal mine.)
In a competitive marketplace, employees have choices, and when those s who has the potential to be high achievers are shut down, they tend to begin to look elsewhere for opportunities to put their skills to better use - another employer, perhaps a competitor, who is more dedicated to solving problems than covering them up.
During periods of economic stagnation when there are few opportunities, they may stick around and be silent - but the author recounts personal experiences, such as the dot-com boom of the 1990s, when there was a sudden demand for talent and entire departments were vacated by talented people who had been waiting for years for an opportunity to escape. A competitor does not even have to offer a better environment. When dissatisfaction builds over time, the employee has a sense that anyplace else is better.
The best way to retain top talent is to listen to them, and trust that their desire to solve problems is for the good of the firm. The author refers to an HBR survey (Hamori 2012) that found that many high-achievers were on the lookout for opportunities to leave, mainly because their leaders "aren't listening."
Or more to the point of this book, their leaders may be listening, but they are not reacting to what they hear in an appropriate and effective manner. They are avoiding, rather than having, the difficult conversations.
What You Will Get from Reading This Book
(EN: Largely a summary of the content of upcoming chapters, plus a few stray remarks noted below.)
Within an organization, a "leader" is any person who exerts influence to effect a positive change. Some individuals in positions of formal authority do very little of this, using their power to demand acceptance of the status quo. That is not, by definition, leadership - and it turns out that leadership most often happens in positions where there is no formal authority at all.
(EN: This seems a bit pessimistic, but other writers have also observed that a person with authority often does not practice leadership because he does not need to. Those who can back their demands with threats often do, or their subordinates assume their demands are backed by threats, and as such they do not need to influence.)
An effective and authentic leader inspires rather than directs - they encourage people to change their way of thinking rather than merely their actions, and who does not perceive a difficult conversation as a problem, but as an opportunity to explore and discover solutions.
And as a closing thought for the introduction, the author suggests this: a comfortable conversation does nothing to change the status quo - it is only when we enter into "the discomfort zone" that real progress is made.