The Productive Zone of Disequilibrium

I discovered a tool that that is extraordinarily useful in my work with CEOs. This tool is called the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium, a term coined by Ronald Heifetz, co-developer of the Adaptive Leadership framework. Heifetz defines the productive zone of disequilibrium as the optimal range of distress within which the urgency in the system motivates people to engage in adaptive work. In other words, this is the place where people are creative and come up with solutions. Move too high in the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium, and people panic or lock up. Go too low, and people become complacent.

When volunteers or staff become complacent, leaders must be adept at adjusting; turning up the disequilibrium, and when they start freaking out, turn it down so that you keep them in the space where they’re developing solutions. What does that mean in practical terms?

Let’s suppose that you have a staff member assigned to identify all the members of your organization who are invested in your number one strategic objective. That person comes to you, and they’re freaking out. Complaints of “I can’t do this,” “this is overwhelming,” and “I have too much on my plate” abound. As a leader, you must help them return to the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium, not provide the solution to them. You can do this by asking them to interview your executive committee members and identify individuals they know are aligned with the objective. Next, have them interview those people, and so on. This simple structure will lower the stress and allow your staff to go about their assignment.

Well, let’s say your staff comes in at the other end of the disequilibrium axis; they’re complacent. As a leader, you want to ratchet that person up. You want to express that going with the flow can backfire and become costly, something you’d like to avoid. Ask the staff member to create a step-by-step process that can be followed and will net the best results. This assignment will increase the stress for that person. Hopefully, just enough movement to nudge them back into the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium.

To learn more about the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium or for guidance on how to adjust staff to meet that zone, email me at

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