Comfort, Stretch, Panic. Which Zone Are You In?

June 24, 2020


Have you ever been in a team or project for a long haul and craved a new challenge? Or do you recall a time when you had to push your boundaries and learn new skills on the job? Has there ever been a time when a new situation made you feel scared, anxious and out of your depth?

If you’ve been in any of these situations, you’ve experienced the psychological states that have popularly become known as the comfort, stretch and panic zones. In organizations, various situations like business challenges, organizational and team cultures, project roles and responsibilities, and inter-personal dynamics can move people into one of these three zones on a regular basis. And being in one of these zones can affect your wellbeing and productivity, for the better or worse. Let’s look at what each of the zones means.

Comfort, Stretch, Panic Zones

The Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is a state in which your ability and skills match the degree of challenge in a situation or activity. You’re fully in control of the situation and the tasks it involves. Over time, with repeated practice, you may also develop mastery in specific skills. This combination of being familiar with a situation and knowing how to handle it create a feeling of psychological safety that we call the comfort zone.

For example, let’s say Samson is a sales executive in a company selling solar lighting solutions. He works as an individual contributor in a small retail sales team. Over the last five years, he’s consistently exceeded his targets and helped the retail sales business grow exponentially. Retail sales is now his comfort zone. This role has become second nature to Samson and he feels fully in control and confident of what he does.

However, if Samson gets an opportunity to take on a leadership role and is unwilling to let go of his current role, his comfort zone could become an obstacle to his growth as a sales professional.

The Stretch Zone

The stretch zone is a state in which the degree of challenge in a situation or activity slightly exceeds your ability to handle it. This shift in balance creates a mild tension, making you feel alert and a bit nervous at the same time. You feel this way because you are yet to learn how to handle the new challenges that you’re experiencing in a situation. The marginal gap between your abilities and the degree of difficulty can be an opportunity for you to move outside your comfort zone and grow. This is why the stretch zone is considered ideal for new learning to take place, especially with the right guidance and support.

Staying with Samson’s example, let’s say after five years of being a top sales executive, he gets promoted as a regional sales manager. In his new role, he has to lead a team of 20 sales executives. This will require him to move from being an individual contributor to managing people, projects, budgets and strategies for growing the business. It involves learning new skills and taking on bigger responsibilities. This ‘stretch’ in the scope of his new role will invite Samson to move outside the comfort zone of his current role. With guidance and support from his leaders, Samson can steadily grow into his new role.

The Panic Zone

The panic zone is a state in which the degree of challenge in a situation or activity far exceeds your ability to handle it effectively. This creates a disequilibrium that can throw you off balance into a state of anxiety, fear and self-doubt. The panic zone is therefore considered least conducive for new learning and growth.

In Samson’s case, let’s say a rival firm offers him the position of Head of Sales for an entire new business division. Samson takes up the offer and within weeks of joining, he realizes that he doesn’t have the competencies that this new role requires. This large gap between his abilities and the degree of challenge can send Samson into the panic zone, where he may feel anxious and incapable of living up to the expectation of his role. Such a state of panic and worry is least conducive for new learning and growth.

The origins of the comfort-stretch-panic zone model can be traced to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, developed by psychologists Robert. M. Yerkes and John. Dillingham Dodson in 1908. According to the law, performance increases with physiological or mental arousal or stress, but only up to a point. When the stress becomes too high, performance decreases. In 2009, another psychologist Alasdair White coined the term Comfort Zone in his paper titled From Comfort Zone to Performance Management.

Each of us have our own comfort, stretch and panic zones for various situations. While it’s not a definitive or time tested theory, this model can serve as a handy guide that helps people become aware of what their individual boundaries are and what triggers make them move from one zone to the other, for better or worse. Here’s how the comfort-stretch-panic zone model can help you as a business leader:

1- Understand the diversity in your organization

The same situation can move different people into comfort, stretch or panic zones, depending on their abilities and preparedness. Knowing this diversity could help you check your own assumptions about the people in your organization.

2- Create supportive cultures

When you become aware of the diversity in your organization, you can create cultures and processes that help people stay in the comfort zones for feeling safe, move into stretch zone for growth opportunities and avoid situations that move them into panic zone.

3- Improve performance

Knowing what moves people into each of the three change zones can help you set appropriate performance targets and benchmarks that push people to achieve better results consistently.

4- Team building

A situation or challenges that moves one person into panic zone can move another into either stretch or comfort zone. This presents opportunities for you to create inter-dependent team where people complement each other with their strengths.

5- Personal development

Leadership isn’t just about how you lead others. It’s also about how you lead yourself while addressing various business challenges. When adaptive challenges present themselves, there is always a risk of you moving into panic zone. When you move there, you take your team and organization along as well. Being able to recognize this will help you create psychological safety for your teams and then decide the best ways in which each of you can harness your strengths and move to the stretch zone.

by Arjun Sashidhar, Amani Institute Program Manager

This article is part of a knowledge series dedicated to skills that are particularly useful for Small and Growing Businesses. Check out the other articles from the series:
How to Get Your Money’s Worth Training Your Staff
Capitalize on Your Strengths in Your Leadership Journey
Changing the Culture of Feedback


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