Comfort is for home, not work

Comfort at work could be a career killer

Our plates were well picked over, but the waitress was hesitant to interrupt us to clear the table. My dinner conversation with Susan, a potential employee, was easily into its third hour. Susan's a smart, experienced technician -- exactly what we needed for our start-up. I'd answered every question that she'd thrown at me, but she just wasn't ready to change jobs. Her current one was very comfortable, she said.

Ah, comfort. I crave it at home. A loving spouse, a cozy chair, fuzzy slippers -- these are things that create a much-needed decompression zone between work and sleep. We each have comforts that reduce the day's stresses or console us on bad days. Relaxed at home in the evening, we are more likely to think of solutions to the challenges that we faced during the day. The comforts of home help us perform better and, in doing so, help our careers.

But comfort at work? It's career killer. Sure, it's good to have a few routines that bring predictability to the day, such as an afternoon walk to the coffee shop with a colleague or a sports discussion with the guys in sales on Monday mornings. These routines do more than give us necessary breaks; they help connect us with our co-workers and build trust -- things that can improve our work performance.

But when our actual work turns from daily recurrences to years-encrusted routine, we can find ourselves wrapped in a warm blanket of familiarity, all snug in what has most likely become a stagnated career.

Sometimes we choose comfort at work because our lives outside of it are in turmoil. Or we may need some time to direct our energies toward other things -- school or a volunteer project, for example -- that take priority over our careers at the moment. At those times, having a comfortable job can be a good strategy. But if you're interested in advancement, keep this time as short as possible.

Susan was responsible for her younger brothers, and over the past year, she had focused her energy on getting the youngest into Berkeley. As we talked about her recent job history, she admitted that she had become more and more attached to her job. It was just so nice at work: She knew everyone, and she knew what to expect and how to solve problems. Sure, there were occasional crises, but overall, each day was predictable. What Susan saw as comfort I saw as daily routines that were rhythmically soothing Susan's career to sleep.

How does a manager move someone out of a comfortable job without losing him? First, you need his permission. You need to find out why he's chosen comfort. If he has done it because of a personal situation that he'd rather not discuss, then that's that. If you make changes without his permission, he'll leave.

After getting permission, talk about how and when duties should change. For Susan, a twentysomething, I discussed how her career might advance because of the experiences she would gain at her new job. As she began to understand the scope of the opportunity I was presenting and its potential benefits for her career, she also began to comprehend what staying comfortable would cost. It took her few more days to incorporate all that we had discussed, but on Monday she signed our offer letter.

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