A few years ago, my then-boss Nick Shackleton-Jones arranged for the team to spend two personal development days at RADA. It was mortifying. I can vividly remember how uncomfortable I felt lying on the floor doing breathing exercises amongst colleagues, how awkward I felt as we were asked to move around the room using a series of different walks, how ridiculous I felt when we had to ‘throw’ words ‘into the room’, and how self-conscious I felt walking into the middle of the room and standing in silence for a full minute with my colleagues staring at me and then appraising my entrance and first impressions.
But I also look back on those two days as one of the best development experiences I’ve had. Certainly one of the best formal development experiences. As well as all those excruciating activities, we role-played various business situations in front of the group in a kind of forum theatre approach. I’m not sure how much the breathing, word-throwing and walking activities helped me but the feedback and suggestions from the first impressions exercise and role plays had a huge impact on me. To the extent that when Nick asked a year later whether I thought we should go back, I was really supportive of the idea (although I may have threatened to resign if certain exercises were repeated!). And when we did go back, and were facilitated by the same actor, he commented on the change he saw in me from the year prior.
I think of this experience regularly, most recently during Nigel Paine‘s ‘leadership on the edge’ session at Learning Technologies. He talked of the role of discomfort in learning, or development more broadly, drawing on the more extreme examples of the Antarctica expedition he co-facilitated last year and his upcoming Peak District leadership programme. And the theme recurred in a later session, as Paul Binks described the hugely successful Premier Life programme he introduced at Kwik Fit. It may take place in a nice venue, probably with decent coffee and chocolate biscuits, but – for the mechanics and garage owners being asked to self-examine, share their feelings and, ultimately, reflect on the experience through some kind of performance – the discomfort is no less real than it may be for the people Nigel will soon be asking to abseil off a viaduct.
In all three examples – my RADA experience, Nigel’s physically demanding expeditions, and Paul’s personal development programme – the results have been extremely (perhaps surprisingly) positive. People leave these experiences understanding themselves better; in some cases they leave as changed people. The impact often extends beyond professional performance and into their personal lives.
What is it about discomfort that can be so transformative? And what are the necessary conditions for this to be the case? Here are some of my thoughts, albeit still only partly-formed:
- Support is vital. Discomfort is one thing; danger is something different. That support takes different forms. During an Antarctic expedition, obviously people need to know beyond question that they have experts around to keep them safe. In more commonplace corporate events, people have to trust other attendees and the facilitators to keep things confidential, to listen without judgement, to be critical friends.
- Anonymity can play a key role. Being asked to let down your defences, to share things that you might not normally share with colleagues, to push your boundaries and test out different behaviours: these things can be easier in the company of strangers. Of course, I went to RADA with the colleagues I worked with every day and the lack of anonymity didn’t stop it having that huge impact on me – but that group of people was a pretty special team and (tying into the point above) I trusted and felt supported by them.
- There are different ways to draw value from these experiences. There are lessons that can be drawn explicitly from discomforting situations, such as teamwork techniques following a physical group challenges. There are the kinds of observations that I received from my colleagues at RADA, and the adjustments and techniques suggested to me as a result. But maybe just being pushed outside your comfort zone is itself developmentally valuable. Even without explicit lessons being drawn out of it, an experience that encourages and allows you to become vulnerable, to face a fear and get through to the other side, perhaps shifts your mindset to one that is more (or differently) open, more receptive to new ideas, more able to take a different perspective.
I’m interested in different ways we can incorporate discomfort into what we do. In particular in the context of online content, rather than the live, group situations described above. Can we confront people with unexpected images or stories to encourage that shift of perspective? Can we, even in this online context, find ways to encourage people to reflect deeply and honestly on themselves and their own behaviour and mindset? How else can we use discomfort to enable or enhance people’s development?