Feeling uncomfortable? Great - you're doing D&I right
“We shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”
If I had a penny for every time I've heard this... let’s just say my coin purse could double as a dumbbell. Discomfort often comes up in discussions about inclusion, usually framed in a negative way. It's undesirable - dangerous, even. Something to be avoided.
But is it really? I certainly don’t think so. To the contrary, I believe discomfort is a necessary part of the process. So much so that I'll make a bold statement: in my view, if people are not experiencing any discomfort you're not doing D&I right.
The comfort zone is great - but we don’t learn and grow in there
At heart, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are transformation programmes. We equip people to shift their mindsets, unlearn behaviours and orient themselves towards new, inclusive thoughts and actions. This kind of change simply doesn't happen if you remain in your comfort zone.
You're probably familiar with some variation of the above diagram that depicts change experts Ryan and Markova’s model of how we learn. The comfort zone is where everything is familiar and we feel safe. We generally don’t question what goes on in here, and thus we don’t learn. In the panic zone, on the other hand, we are so far out of our comfort zone that we feel stressed, fearful, overwhelmed. All our energy goes towards surviving, rendering learning equally improbable.
The stretch zone is the perfect middle ground between the two. Things might feel awkward and unfamiliar but they’re not too scary to deal with. We can tolerate them, learn from them, and subsequently expand our boundaries. In time our comfort zone expands as ideas and ways of acting that were once strange and unfamiliar become normal to us.
Workplace disruptions that trigger discomfort take place on a regular basis. New teams are created. Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures take place. New tools and ways of working get implemented. All of these force people to adjust to a new reality and learn to work in new ways, with colleagues they might not be familiar with or even like. In other words, they have to surrender comfort for discomfort.
Leaders don’t bring this about out of malice, but because they see that doing something new will help achieve business aims. Discomfort today has value because it means we can build a better tomorrow.
Be aware: Not everyone is comfortable today
The drive to preserve comfort also ignores an important reality: not everyone is comfortable right now. The fact that biases and inequities exist means that every day people from marginalised communities are overlooked for promotion. Turned down by hiring panels. Penalised for speaking up about their needs. Have to endure microaggressions and offhand comments made at their expense. How comfortable do you think they are?
Maintaining comfort really equates to preserving the power and privilege of the few. They’re the only ones who benefit from the status quo; everyone else is already uncomfortable in some way. I believe we have a responsibility to move out of our comfort zones if this means making things better for others. Especially since our ultimate aim - inclusion and belonging - benefits all of us in the long run.
'Comfort is overrated. People and systems rely on our silence to keep us exactly where we are.' Luvvie Ajayi Jones
Get people uncomfortable, but keep safety paramount
They say you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. I’d like to point out that you also can’t make an omelette unless you break the eggs into a bowl, mix them, then carefully cook the mixture in a hot pan. In other words, how you break the eggs matters. And breaking them is just the beginning of the process.
D&I-related discomfort should not be taken lightly. After all, we’re talking about issues that significantly impact people’s lives and livelihoods, and can have life and death consequences. There’s a lot of raw emotion involved. We must prioritise safety and proceed with the utmost care.
That’s why there are professionals on hand. We can craft experiences that move people out of the comfort zone in a way that triggers learning and growth, not additional trauma. We can create safe spaces. For while comfort and safety can go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. Dangerous environments can feel comfortable and familiar if we’re exposed to them for long enough.
In conclusion, don’t shy away from discomfort. Embrace it - but make sure you have the right support in place so you can use it to achieve constructive outcomes.