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Why “comfortable” cultures are a bad idea

Thought Leader: Rachel Botsman
June 19, 2022
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Do you feel too comfortable at work?

Being “comfortable” is increasingly being talked about as a cultural workplace ideal. But a “comfortable culture” is a bad idea wrapped up in the best of intentions.

The intention is to make all people feel safe — but environments that are too comfortable do not promote viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.

They don’t encourage people to take meaningful risks, to push themselves into the unknown — to get out of their “comfort zones.”

Comfortable cultures make me feel uncomfortable. That’s why this week we’re rethinking the conflation of comfort with psychological safety.

The discomfort of disagreement

Our family has a rule around the dinner table: You can disagree with one another, but you must stick around to respectfully listen to the other person’s answer. You can’t storm off. They have a love-hate relationship with this rule! But I want my kids to be able to talk about issues that are messy, divisive, or even sad, and to have hard conversations with their friends (and eventually their colleagues) who might at times drive them crazy. I want them to get comfortable with the discomfort of difference.

Do you take pushback at work personally?

For a very long time, I took disagreement at work very personally. Sometimes, I even perceived it as a threat. I simply hadn’t developed the skills to be emotionally resilient to disagreement; I had to learn them.

I realised I wanted my kids to have a different relationship to constructive disagreement after reading a fascinating book called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure  by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

Here’s a summary of the authors’ argument about the dangers of what they call “safetyism”: Safety culture began with a focus on “physical safety” and protecting kids from every imaginable danger. From not letting young children eat peanuts, to constantly telling them to “be careful” in the playground. But this culture of physical safety has now crept into expansive notions of emotional safety.

“A culture that allows the concept of ’safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.” — Jonathan Haidt

Haidt and Lukianoff argue that we’re living in a culture that has swung so far on emotional safety that we’re becoming less resilient in handling the discomfort of disagreement.

Concept creep

“Emotional safety” has undergone what Australian psychologist Nick Haslam calls concept creep.” Haslam has found that since the 1980s, key concepts in social psychology — including prejudice and bullying — “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,” expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.” I know I’m walking on sensitive ground here but if this is making you feel a tad uncomfortable, stay with me…

Great minds don’t always think alike

If you teach, you’ll be familiar with ideas such as “safe spaces,” “speech codes for controversial speakers” and “trigger warnings” — don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% behind practices that protect people from exposure to ideas that could cause serious distress. But when we need to feel comfortable all the time, it’s an alarming signal of a low-trust culture.   

I’ve only been teaching for seven years; however, during that short period I’ve experienced a shift in classroom dynamics. I often feel like I’m walking on eggshells, more fearful of saying something that it is provocative in case it causes offence. For example, I sheepishly admit I stopped teaching students about a controversial idea in China called “social citizen scores” after being criticised for my biased Western lens.

Here’s what deeply bothers me: A “comfortable place” is not necessarily a “safe space” for engaging with controversial ideas. The goal of making everyone feel comfortable may be well-intended but it can have the unintended negative effect of hyper-vigilance and reduced trust. And that trend in higher learning has now extended into the workplace.

The danger zone of comfort 

In any exercise routine, it’s easy to hit a place of comfort, a plateau. You do the reps and go through the motions, but it’s almost become automatic. There is very little stretch, and you stop seeing changes. You can even get a bit lethargic and bored, hanging out in this zone. The same is true for mental comfort. When a work environment becomes too comfortable it can:

·      Be at odds with growth and learning.

·      Lead to taking disagreement as a personal attack vs. a different viewpoint.

·      Close us off to new ways of thinking.

·      Stop pushback against bad ideas.

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Key: There is a BIG difference between a sense of being accepted, respected, and included by those around you, and feeling too comfortable.

Psychological safety is not the same as comfort

The basis for creating inclusive cultures isn’t comfort but high trust and psychological safety.

“Psychological safety” is a concept first defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson back in 1999. It’s that feeling of not worrying about being judged or embarrassed when you express a different point of view.

‘‘Psychological safety is sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.’’ — Amy Edmondson

The goal should be cultures where people are comfortable being themselves but not uncomfortable pushing through discomfort to learn and grow.

The role of a leader is to protect their team from harm — but not from discomfort of the right kind of disagreements.


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