Being Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable: Advice to New CHROs and Others!

By Dave Ulrich | July 17, 2018

As I reflect on preparing new CHROs, I wonder if we should also help them learn to accept being uncomfortable?

I recently attended an exceptional two-day event to orient and develop newly minted chief HR officers (CHROs). As I listened to the remarkable presentations, I realized that we (senior faculty who were facilitating) were working to make these CHROs more “comfortable” in their new role. We offered them insights on how to succeed, including recognizing and anticipating emerging trends and best practices in HR, working with their key stakeholders (board, CEO, management team), building their HR department, and so forth. We shared with them how our experiences might enlighten and help them make informed choices as new CHROs.

Essentially, we were saying, “Congratulations! Your new role comes with unique challenges and opportunities. Let us help you make this transition more comfortable.” 

As I reflect on preparing new CHROs (and others), I wonder if we should also help them learn to accept being uncomfortable?

Feeling comfortable by knowing what to expect and how to respond is certainly nice. But in a world of dramatic uncertainty and constant change, maybe we need a bit more comfort with discomfort—a recognition that my new surroundings may mean that I feel in over my head, that I am not sure I can do what isexpected of me, and that I don’t always know what to do or how to do it. 

Some work discomforts are wrong and should be challenged (harassment or working conditions); but others are an inevitable part of work and can be sources of growth (e.g., unique responsibilities of a new job, difficult conversations, or uncertainties about the business future). In these cases, comfort enables the status quo; discomfort sparks innovation. Comfort is about me and my feelings; discomfort is about the context and what is required. Comfort encourages predictability and disciplined action; discomfort accepts chaos and impromptu execution. Comfort soothes me; discomfort unsettles me. Comfort reduces risk; discomfort acknowledges and manages risk. 

By getting more comfortable with discomfort, leaders are more likely to disrupt themselves or their organization before someone else does it to them. 

Over my career, I have probably done two or three presentations a week for decades. While I generally know and feel comfortable with my material, I often feel uncomfortable about how the ideas can be adapted to the particular audience. I also almost always feel uncomfortable with how to best present so that the ideas will have impact. I have learned that my discomfort about both the ideas and their impact challenges me to continually reinvent my craft. This allows me to stay fresh instead of becoming obsolete.

So how does one become comfortable being uncomfortable? More specifically, how does an HR professional coach, train, develop, and encourage leaders to live with (accept, cherish, value) discomfort? Below are some principles to practice being comfortable with discomfort.

Manage expectations. 

Being ok with being outside my comfort zone includes expecting that not everything will go well. I have watched dozens (even hundreds) of faculty present to executive audiences. Some of these presenters are incredible performers who have mastered their presentation down to the timing of their main points, stories, jokes, and asides. Others facilitate by continually experimenting with new material. Performers help the audience feel comfortable (which creates positive emotion); facilitators push the audience outside their comfort zone (which encourages deep learning). The performers generally get the highest faculty ratings; the facilitators likely have the most sustainable impact. Facilitators have to manage their own expectations that their ratings may not be the best, but they decide that impact matters more. Likewise, managing expectations means accepting that the consequences of certain choices are not always rosy. For example, dismissing an employee can and should be emotionally painful. Accepting lower initial results and the unpleasant consequences of certain choices comes with walking outside one’s comfort zone. 

Spend time with the difficult outliers. 

Visiting disgruntled customers or employees, surrounding yourself with people who disagree with you (and doing it with grace), and attending conferences or meetings where you are

 not the expert or person in charge helps one get out of one’s comfort zone. Accessing and listening to those who don’t necessarily agree with us challenges our assumptions. In these difficult settings, we can anticipate and expect that disagreements are often not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and that is ok and part of being comfortable with discomfort.

Learn continually.

Hal Gregerson has done a wonderful job encouraging leaders to ask questions and question-storm to seek new insights. Learning means facing mistakes (accepting the discomfort 

of owning our mistakes) rather than hiding or running away from them, then folding insights into the future. Moving up the hierarchy often leads to decisions with greater impact and less clarity. This requires leaders to acknowledge mistakes with radical transparency; then they are more likely to learn, move forward, and be more comfortable with the discomfort of overcoming challenges. 

Acknowledge limitations.

Sometimes leaders think they need to lead by having answers, and when confronted, they show more bluster to hide their ignorance. To say “I don’t know” or to invite someone to help solve a tricky problem is often appropriate at times. Accepting limitations and involving others spreads the discomfort which makes it more palatable and easier to manage. 

Take care of myself. 

Living with discomfort often takes an emotional toll and requires a balance of “uncomfortable” with “comfortable” times. If we get too much comfort, we become self-absorbed and stale. If we get too much discomfort, we lose ourselves, burn out, or quit. Continually pushing boundaries, challenging assumptions, and fixing (or not fixing) problems is often draining. We legitimately need to take time outs to reflect, ponder, and renew. These time outs may be with friends, with hobbies, with mindfulness training, or simply with “vegging out” (watching reruns of NCIS, ahem!). 

So to the newly minted CHROs (and to other leaders and each of us), find comfort in the discomfort of your future role! 

How would you practice being comfortable with discomfort?


Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help leaders align their company's brand identity with leadership brand, employer brand, and a high performing culture. To learn about our Leadership & Talent Development programs and events worldwide, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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