I have been lucky in that I have had the opportunity to be a coach and project manager while learning the expertise material. It has given me the opportunity to apply different approaches in multiple settings and see the results. It has been those experiences that gave me the desire to write more about this topic. This material has helped me in my daily interactions and I hope it can help you too.

In my last post I listed the four key points from Ericsson that increase the chances that a development program will result in elite performance. In my next four posts I am going to go through each point in a little more detail.

Today I wanted to take a closer look at his first point:

Does the task push the employee outside of their comfort zone to things that do not come easily?

Understanding what the comfort zone is important because it gives us some idea of why improvement stalls. Let’s start with what the comfort zone actually is, and what your other options you have. Research has pointed at three psychological states that an individual can be in:

  • Comfort Zone- Low/No stress.
  • Performance/Learning Zone- Optimal amount of stress.
  • Danger Zone- Too much stress.

The theory states that learning (or performance) increases as stress is increased to the correct amount, but severely declines once too much stress is added. The secret is knowing what the zone is for each person you manage, and how long they can stay there.

This theory is most obvious in athletic training. In weightlifting you need to increase the weights to improve, but increase too much, stress your muscles too far, and bad things happen. The same goes for distance running. You need to increase speed and distance, but doing too much all at once or before you are ready can be a miserable experience. The key is finding the right increases for your body at the right time.

Next we need to ask how we keep our employees in the learning zone. We need to start by having a clear understanding of where each employee is in regards to the skill they need to develop. Understanding the baseline capability will lead us into developing the correct tasks, assignments, and experiences to correctly push employees out of their comfort zone.  Now comes the important part- we have to actually monitor progress and see how things are going in real time. This is even more important with a new employee, where it will probably be impossible to know their baseline beforehand. This approach will give you the ability to accurately adjust the level of difficulty over time to ensure that your employees’ development track continues in the upward direction.

As a final thought, there are always going to be roadblocks in development, or plateaus, or problems that seem impossible. I really like the approach that Ericsson suggests in Peak, that we don’t say “try harder” rather “try differently”. This is where enlisting the help of someone who is already an expert in the field can help with mentoring.  This is one of the key points in Ericsson’s purposeful practice approach that we will talk about more in the future (affiliate link for the Peak book).


I got a note from one of our readers, a supply chain manager from the Carolinas, that my baseball card reference reminded him of an article he had read about a company that created baseball cards for their employees. I wanted to post it here and see if it created any discussion on the topic. How do you think their approach would work at your company? Bridgewater Associates


Posts in this series: Intro   Part 1: Comfort Zone   Part 2: Feedback   Part 3: Elite Performance