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The Comfort trap

  • Posted On: 10th June 2013
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What prevents managers from continuously learning and growing – from experimenting and trying out new ways of doing things? Why do some people settle for less in terms of quality of life, their expectations from self and others, and from aiming high? Why do many people choose to languish in mediocrity, instead of striving for higher standards in all spheres of life?
“Be close to your friends, but even closer to your enemies”. I came across this quote five years ago, on a post card with a black and white picture of Al Pacino sitting regally in a classic pose with a cigar in his right hand. This post card was amongst the few that were placed on the coffee table in my friend’s living room. As you might have guessed, this line comes from the film The Godfather.
I remember sharing my puzzlement with my son the same afternoon. He was 24 at the time. I requested him to decipher this unusual message for me. “How can you be closer to your enemies? Aren’t we meant to avoid them at all costs?” I asked. Being young, I thought he may enlighten me with a fresh perspective, and he did! Of course, his interpretation had nothing to do with the intended message, but it certainly made sense to me then, and does so to this day. First he described what he understood by the term ‘enemy’ by saying that, “An enemy is someone or something that can harm your interest in a significant way.”
His use of the expression ‘something’ was unusual, and one that triggered a series of thoughts in my mind and we got talking. We both came to the conclusion that an enemy need not only be a person. It can also be a habit or a trait that someone may have acquired over the years and that is being harmful to his/her interest – both in the short and the long term, e.g., a manager not asking his seniors questions to better understand the reasoning behind a given decision. “You don’t ask, but do what you are told around here.” I heard a manager telling a fresh recruit recently.
What prevents managers from continuously learning and growing – from experimenting and trying out new ways of doing things? Why do some people settle for less in terms of quality of life, their expectations from self and others, and from aiming high? Why do many people choose to languish in mediocrity, instead of striving for higher standards in all spheres of life?
I came to the conclusion that whatever holds us back from pursuing excellence in all spheres of life must be our enemy number one. We need to get close to this enemy within, whatever it is. To this end, we need to indulge in close introspection. It takes courage to journey within the deep recesses of ourselves for fear of what we might unearth lurking within our psyche – our being.
It’s considerably easier to find faults with others, than within one’s own self. Elizabeth Kline, founder and president of leadership development program iMPACT highlights this by saying[1], “If we’re talking about changing organizations, then it requires personal transformation or basic shifts in how we think and how we interact with each other. We could choose to stay in “victim mode” where we keep pointing the finger out there and say, “It’s the system; they don’t understand.” We could continue pointing the finger outside all the time.”
Therefore, rather than engaging in a perpetual blame game, we need to work on an old phrase: ‘Know Thy Self’ if we really care about whom we are and what we do repeatedly to jeopardize our own future quite innocently and unknowingly.
Our basic ability to function in society – to pay taxes, meet essential living expenses and enjoy a reasonable standing in the community – rather than serving as a platform for better things to come, often ends up becoming a real barrier to progress. Individuals, families, communities and societies consequently suffer as they are seduced by the everyday stability life starts to offer them. Our desire to seek and stay in comfort, that which is familiar to us, is the very trap we need to step out of.
Our habit of clinging to what we know, kills our appetite to take risks, and instead we settle for what is, rather than strive for what could be. This malaise afflicts some organizations – large and small – in tragic ways. The biggest loss comes from corporate leaders not leveraging human ingenuity at their disposal. Managers in such organizations are married to the status quo, blindly following orders from above. Rocking the proverbial boat is the last thing on their minds. Instead, they choose to comply with laid down policies and procedures, even though they may be out-of-date or even irrelevant for customers.
It’s not just middle managers, some of whom choose to remain smug in their assigned roles, dreaming of their pensions, but even those at the top who often discourage dissenting voices and prefer to substitute obedience for commitment.
A visible symptom of our addiction to ‘comfort’ is the excessive dependence on job security. This compulsion is worse than drugs and as a consequence organizations and societies suffer. Unfortunately, this trait in human nature has been blatantly exploited by many large corporations the world over, particularly in situations where the scale of operations requires standardization and a multitude of small tasks and activities that need to be performed by thousands of individuals repetitively.
When you look at large manufacturing plants and service organizations, you will find complex and sophisticated processes and systems driving the business. It’s understandable and necessary to ensure safety, consistency and quality…But what of the de-humanizing affect it has on people? Should employees be slotted into pre-determined ‘boxes’ only to be forgotten? This intolerable state of affairs is sustained because people generally seek the path of comfort, as opposed to the rigors of discovery and learning.
Has slavery gone away from our lives? I wonder. The image we carry of slaves from history is men in chains who were forced to perform hard labor in the fields and on construction sites. They had no free-will. For them it was only: “His Masters Voice”. What has changed in our times? We seem to have moved subtly from the physical image of men in chains to confining the human mind. The less it thinks the better.
In many large organizations that preach openness and dignity, participation in decision-making and engaging with people is seen as inconvenient and indeed disruptive to the order of things. To hear remarks in the 21st century, like, “I follow orders”; or “I do what the boss says.” “I don’t question why…it’s too much hassle,” is shocking and sadly illustrates the preponderance of enslaved minds.
I once had a meeting with one of the directors of a local family business in Lahore. His company employed over two thousand people at the time. My conversation with this young, western educated professional was satisfying, as he clearly understood the concepts of modern management. After a stimulating conversation on best practices in management, he concluded that, “All these great ideas are fine for others – but we don’t need them in our company. Things are fine as they are. I do the thinking and my people execute what they are told. It would be too time-consuming and frustrating for me to have meetings with my staff to make tactical and strategic decisions.” Thank God, many self-respecting professionals stay clear of such demeaning and suffocating work environments.
Change has been with us since time began. Lately it has become a buzzword in management circles. To talk about change is one thing, but to actually make it happen is quite another matter. To change a car is easy; to change ones house is easy; to change ones job is also relatively easy. But to change habits? Well, that’s certainly not easy…and unfortunately true change begins with self.
Only when you step out of your comfort zone, will you discover the vast possibilities that await you. Follow your heart with wisdom, instead of wasting your energy protecting your turf, and suffering in silence.
Our ultimate challenge is to focus on making people employable, instead of killing their creative potential by seducing them with the untenable promise of continued employment.

[1] From an interview by Jennfer Millman which appeared on Diversity Inc website:

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