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  • Elena Gillis

Normalize Being Uncomfortable: why discomfort is integral to achieving your DEI goals

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

“Discomfort is currency for growth.” This phrase may feel like a common trope. But it’s true, and proof has been around for a long time. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson concluded in 1908 that a state of comfort creates a steady level of performance, while a state of relative anxiety can maximize performance. This is called “optimal anxiety”, and it is found just outside of our comfort zone. Discomfort fuels innovation, growth and success.

In my own experience, nothing is truer. I acknowledge that welcoming discomfort is not natural, but it can be practiced and it becomes easier! I learned this first-hand travelling solo internationally. I came to understand the ways that discomfort eases as you push yourself out of your comfort zone, and how much that can shape you.

A book that I always have on my bedside table – even when I am traveling – is Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron. The cover is worn, and the pages dog-eared and it has become a guide to navigate my experiences. In it she writes:

“…anyone that stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present, without a reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time. What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear… not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking. …Fear is the natural reaction of moving closer to the truth.”

Pema recognizes that emotions of uncertainty, change, growth, discomfort… they are rooted in fear, and they are all on the pathway towards truth.

Having honest conversations about issues of diversity is uncomfortable for everyone. Even more so when the discussion is with people different than us. Often those who are in privileged groups have never been in a space that requires them to discuss issues of their identity and privilege. They are out of practice. And those who are in more marginalized groups don’t want to put themselves willingly into a position where they invite discomfort – and discrimination – that they experience regularly.

These discussions can be a mine field, and potentially disruptive to a workplace. This is why people like me are so important – because I can serve as a bridge, bringing people together to engage in these uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations to drive organizational change. We live in a time of awakening, and people are asking for this change to happen in the places they work. Much can be gained by being open to inclusion, and the challenges that come with it.

In studies about organizational adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) it has been found that organizational change starts with individuals’ responses and willingness to change. The organizations most adaptable and able to learn are those proven to thrive in the future. It was shown that people can shift their mindsets through collective support and empathy, and because of the entrenched power structures in organizations and societies, leaders must learn how to enable this collective support and empathy for change to be successful.

Discomfort is currency for growth. Investing in the uncomfortable process of diversity, equity and inclusion is one of the most important investments that a leader can make for their organization’s growth. Discomfort fuels each of us to learn more about ourselves personally. Experiencing discomfort as a team teaches us more about each other. It builds trust and teaches each of us the value of those around us. And through this an organization can grow.

If this blog spoke to you, please share with others. Let’s start a dialogue that can continue to improve our world.

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