Support vs Challenge — Finding the balance

Most leaders usually have a preference for being either supportive of their team, or challenging them. Some of us are naturally more nurturing in our leadership roles, whereas some of us are more in favour of pushing the people who report in to us to achieve their personal best, often at the expense of being supportive.

It’s important to identify what your preference is. Becoming aware of your tendencies means you can work to create a bit more of a challenge/ support balance in your leadership style. Because the thing is, the people you lead need to have the right mix of challenge and support from their manager in order to stay motivated, engaged and fulfilled in their role.

What is your preference; to challenge or support?

Let’s start with a simple definition of supportive and challenging natures. “Challenging” is the degree to which we question people, push people and increase intensity. Leaders with a preference for being challenging, tend to lack support and, in the extreme, can actually be too critical and can even be perceived to bully their staff in their endeavours. You often see staff who are experiencing burn-out when they are subjected to an overly challenging leader.

Overly “supportive” leaders, on the other hand, run the risk of not creating the results the business needs, in favour of protecting and nurturing the well-being of their staff. In the extreme, supportive staff don’t push or challenge their staff at all, which leads them to feeling unfulfilled and unmotivated both personally and professionally, and lacking any purpose or meaning in their work.

Of course there is another type of leader that I will refer to as the-walking-dead type of leader whose preference is neither to support nor challenge. In this instance the next biggest personality in the team often takes on a leadership role which can be good or bad.

A good leader knows he/she has a responsibility to work together with his/her team in a continuous process of building skills, not just for the sake of the business, but the personal and professional development of each team member. The leader that can apply the right balance of challenge and support, will bring out the best in people.

Nevitt Sanford first came up with the theory of Support and Challenge as being the two ingredients that must be well balanced in order to establish professional and personal growth. Sanford suggested that individuals operate at their own personal best when they are continuously supported and challenged in some sort of effective balance. This, in conjunction with clearly communicating the business objectives and vision to provide purpose and meaning will help an individual to feel fulfilled and motivated and keep them engaged in their role and in the business.

So how can you be both challenging and supportive?

Firstly, by identifying what your preference is, you can ensure you actively address it, and work to bring in the other aspect to your leadership approach. If you tend to be supportive, make sure you start to actively challenge your staff more, and if you naturally tend to lean towards challenge as a preference, make sure you adopt more of a supportive role to your team.

A leader working to achieve a balance of the two, will show that he/ she understands that a job can be tough, but will still push, question and create more challenge for their team. A good example of how to achieve this is if someone you manage comes to you to express their distress with a project that needs to be delivered in a short time frame and their role involves dealing with multiple difficult stakeholders. As a leader, it’s important to be able to actively listen and to show you understand and appreciate the difficulty. You could help them talk it through and together come up with some strategies to best manage the process and people involved and let them know you support them. If you tend to be more supportive, try to avoid taking over but instead work though how to approach it themselves. Secondly, let them know what your expectations are, although you understand their concerns and challenges you still expect them to achieve it and believe in them. Then make sure you express how much you appreciate their achievements! Check in to see how they are progressing to show your support. This can be as simple as asking how they are going when you pass them in the corridor, or sending them a quick email to say ‘great work’.

Knowing your own tendencies to be overly challenging or supportive is key in taking a balanced approach to leadership that will bring out the best in your team. If you have a leadership team in your company that could benefit from my custom leadership workshops, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to get in touch today for an obligation-free discussion.

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