The “challenge zone” and group norms

You may be familiar with the following model of task challenge and learning:

Comfort Zone, Challenge Zone, Panic Zone

Comfort Zone: Tasks are easy and comfortable and pleasant–little learning occurs.

Challenge Zone: Tasks are complex enough to push the boundaries of one’s thinking and skills and maintain active engagement–lots of learning and growth occurs.

Panic Zone: Tasks are far beyond current abilities, anxiety and fear take over and people become overwhelmed and shut down–little learning occurs.

Students of educational psychology may recognize some parallels to the Zone of Proximal Development.

I’ve seen several other names for each of the three levels:
Comfort Zone Boredom Zone
Challenge Zone Risk Zone, Stretch Zone, Learning Zone
Panic Zone Chaos Zone, Danger Zone

I’m a fan of this Comfort/Challenge/Panic model and frequently use it as an internal check on the things I’m doing. When I’m in my Comfort Zone too often, I seek tasks that push me more. When I’m in my Panic Zone, I seek support (and learn to avoid what got me there in the first place).

I was recently in a the first meeting of a yearlong conversation about race and diversity at my university. To start off, the facilitator led a necessary, but otherwise un-noteworthy chat about group norms (well within my Comfort Zone).

Then, she presented the comfort/challenge/panic model of learning (cool, but still not really pushing my thinking).

Then, she guided a jump into my Challenge Zone!

She linked the norms conversation with the comfort/challenge/panic model:  “these group norms are what will keep us in the challenge zone as a group.”

Whoa. Mind blown.

Stretch Zone and Performance

If you want, you can think of learning as an example of “performance,” here.

We didn’t get to dig into this as the group, unfortunately (do we need a norm for when/how to “parking lot” ideas?), so I’d like to explore a bit more here, and get your thoughts.

The underlying theory seems to be that a group functions better and more learning occurs when people are in their Challenge Zones and that well-designed and well-implemented norms enable people to spend more time in their Challenge Zones.

This certainly seems plausible, but I have some more questions:

  1. Are well-designed and well-implemented norms necessary and sufficient to keep the group in its Challenge Zone?
  2. Is it necessary and sufficient for a group to be in its collective Challenge Zone in order to have optimal dialogue and optimal learning?
  3. How do personal Challenge Zones relate to group Challenge Zones? (Can a group be in its Challenge Zone while only some members are in their Challenge Zone? Is it possible for each of the group members to be in their own individual Challenge Zones, but the group as a whole is not?)

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Q #1-3 above!

As an added twist, what happens if we replace “group” and “learning” with “team” and “performance?”

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4 Responses to The “challenge zone” and group norms

  1. Lauren Meyer says:

    Perhaps not surprisingly from an individualist such as myself, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a group or collective challenge zone.

    Unless a group is fairly homogeneous, I think it would be pretty tough to keep all members in their own challenge zones at once. For most of the years when I was a student, if most of my classmates were in their challenge zones, I was incredibly bored in the low end of my comfort zone. In a way, I was being challenged not by the content but by having to conform to appropriate social norms (like not answering every question posed by the teacher and not rolling my eyes at someone else’s (to me) dumb question).


    • zacksg1 says:

      Ah! Good point, Lauren! So, the extent to which multiple people can all simultaneously be in their challenge zones seems to depend on whether everyone is required to be doing the exact same task at the exact same time. In a situation in which a single manager is guiding everyone’s task (such as in the traditional classroom you mentioned), the authority figure can probably assign different roles or tasks within the group that might more closely align with each person’s challenge zone (though this is certainly easier said than done). What about in a more self-directed team (or a group dialogue situation, as mentioned above)–can the group steer itself towards ensuring everyone is in their challenge zone? And: can/do group norms help with this?


      • Lauren Meyer says:

        I’m not sure about that. I think having the content/substance of the group dialogue be appropriately challenging for everyone would still be tough if there’s any real heterogeneity in the participants’ backgrounds. Norms about things like turn taking and respectfully considering others’ input could help challenge those who are more shy to participate more or those who would typically dominate to be more accommodating, for example. So again, I think it’s easier for everyone in a group to be in some form of their own challenge zone for social learning and metacognitive skills than for content.


      • zacksg1 says:

        What if the heterogeneity of the group IS the content?


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