You and your team can apply Karl Rohnke’s comfort/stretch/panic model to your methods of working to understand what kind of learning, knowledge and value you are receiving from your day-to-day experiences at work and outside of work. It helps you recognize the physiological responses you might experience and what your body is telling you when you are in each zone to give you the information you need to make a choice.

Comfort Zone: Little Learning | Stretch Zone: More Learning | Red Zone: Stress

The comfort zone is where your day-to-day, routine, subconscious work happens – where you’re on auto-pilot. It’s easy, there are no surprises, and you are competent and confident in what you do. However, very little learning or innovation takes place, and you can become unmotivated, bored and disengaged.

Most of us need some days in the comfort zone, when we have the calm and head space to reflect on our experiences and then step back into the stretch zone to apply that learning.

The stretch zone lies just outside of your secure environment, slowly expanding your comfort zone by becoming more familiar with more things. The more you step out of your comfort zone, stretch, return to the comfort zone, and reflect and apply, what was once a stretch activity becomes a comfort activity, and you grow.

Stretch is where you work to expand your knowledge and understanding, looking for creative ways of working. Learning or re-learning takes place, and you develop the motivation to make a change, challenge yourself or take a risk. You might feel more alive, engaged, positive or slightly uneasy, but you’re ready to deal with some uncertainty.

The panic zone is also known as the stress or red zone. When taking risks, if you go too far beyond the learning, you can enter the panic zone. Here, your energy is used up by managing and trying to control your anxiety, so you have little or no energy left over for learning. Sometimes, you may need to enter this area because of a problem, but you should not stay there long, as it can be harmful to your health.

If you find yourself working in the panic zone, taking a step back and controlling your breathing can help bring your physiological response (such as a faster heart rate and higher body temperature) under more control, therefore reducing the impact. This exercise can also reduce the sense of feeling overwhelmed and allow you to focus to return to the stretch zone.

While this model can help you as an individual, it can also help you when coaching others. Firstly, remember that everyone’s comfort, stretch and panic zones are different, so you can use the model to have a coaching conversation to explore the feelings and physiological responses that individual experiences in each zone. Writing them down or talking about them, using past examples, can heighten their self-awareness. Then, the conversation can focus on the future and explore how to manage and change their behavior or situation, if possible, to enable them to grow. Even if a situation feels like it’s impossible to change, their choice in how they react to it can be.

As a leader, through observing and asking the right coaching stretch questions, you can gain an understanding of your team’s zones. Ensure that the types of challenges they receive allow them to frequently stretch and develop themselves without pushing them into their panic zone for long periods of time. This strategy will ultimately lead to a motivated and engaged team of people who can recognize and choose their own responses to allow greater learning, innovation and growth.

“If you want to feel secure
Do what you already know how to do.
But if you want to grow…
Go to the cutting edge of your competence,
Which means a temporary loss of security.
So, whenever you don’t quite know
What you are doing
That you are growing…”
(David Viscott, 2003)