Someone I know recently confided in me that his organization is focused to the extreme on results and holding people accountable. The climate is stressful. Leaders seem to exist to constantly point out what you are doing wrong, which puts people in a defensive posture and, actually, makes them less effective problem-solvers. Work here is not fun, and there is little sense of camaraderie. We could say that this workplace is high in challenge and low in support. To work here feels debilitating, which means you lose energy and strength over time. You do not look forward to going to work, and the mission suffers.
But the opposite extreme isn’t necessarily better, right? Imagine a workplace with low expectations and limited accountability for results. Leaders here avoid difficult conversations, and it feels comfortable in a way that lacks meaning. We could say that this workplace is high in support and low in challenge. To work here feels complacent, which means you are in your comfort zone and not growing. Working here is not satisfying, and the mission suffers.
Here’s a question for you: Can a unit/organization be both challenging and supportive?
Can you imagine a culture where the pressure to achieve excellence is intense, and also where people enjoy working together? A place where your shortcomings are made visible, and people express how much they appreciate you. What I am wondering is if leaders can grow a place where people look forward to going in the morning precisely because it is both challenging and supportive?
This quad chart may help us visualize what I’m describing:
An organization imbalanced toward high-challenge becomes debilitating, and an organization imbalanced toward high-support becomes complacent.
Pause to reflect:
Where do you place your organization on this chart?
A hallmark of a healthy, high-performing culture is the presence of both challenge and support—individuals are pushed to the edge of their capabilities even as they are revitalized. This is done deliberately and consistently; it is ritualized, and it is a never-ending process.
In our work, we have uncovered 18 high-payoff behaviors to consider, and there are, of course, many others–to include ideas you have specifically for your context. As you read through these, consider ideas you might want to experiment with. You are leaning into being more intentional about challenging and supporting yourself and your teammates.
Nine High-Challenge (HC) Behaviors:
- Be mission focused (focused like a laser-beam on accomplishing a challenging mission).
- Have high expectations and standards—and be impeccable about agreements.
- Foster real responsibility and autonomy. Give the work back!
- Create accountability, to include giving and receiving candid feedback (up, down, across) on where we are in relationship to where we want to be (current state vs desired state).
- Continuously seek out new challenges (variety and difficulty)—out of your comfort zone, at the edge of your capabilities—to include framing adversity as opportunity.
- Intellectually stimulate the team: Question assumptions, require dissenting opinions, and unleash the full talent of the team in solving problems and finding solutions.
- Lean into ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Coach and continuously develop individuals’ capabilities with a future orientation (customized leader development).
- Cultivate a norm of disciplined, hard work.
Nine High-Support (HS) Behaviors:
- Love, respect, and value people as worthy human beings, apart from their performance.
- Unearth a compelling, attractive vision—be optimistic and hopeful as you continuously communicate about the vision and any progress being made.
- Cultivate psychological safety—an environment where people take interpersonal risk and speak up. Value and seek out the different perspectives.
- Frame mistakes as a crucial part of the innovation process, without which breakthroughs will not happen.
- Really get to know each other! This is about connecting with the human beings you work with on a personal and professional level—which results in bonding, cohesion, and a sense of team or family.
- Regularly celebrate, laugh, and have fun.
- Consistently express genuine gratitude, appreciation, and admiration. Affirm and highlight people’s contributions to each other.
- Coach and continuously develop individuals’ capabilities with a future orientation (customized leader development). Coaching is both high-challenge and high-support.
- Deliberately focus on wellness and resilience: e.g., exercise, nutrition/health, restorative rest, family.
These 18 behaviors provide broad guidance; use them to generate more detailed, specific practices that work in your context. For example, with HS Behaviors #5 and #6, the practice of going out to breakfast together after an all-night team event is something a great team I know does like clockwork. Create rituals and use language that work in your culture.
Interactive Exercise (to do with your team)
First, discuss where you place your organization on the quad chart and consider which direction you may be trending. Then take a few minutes to review the nine “High Challenge” and “High Support” behaviors listed above and discuss your responses to these four questions:
1. What practices does our organization currently use to intentionally challenge people? What is something specific our organization already does that bakes the behavior into a ritual? And, comment about how effective you believe each is right now.
2. What practices does our organization currently use to intentionally support people? What is something specific our organization already does that bakes the behavior into a ritual? And, comment about how effective you believe each is right now.
3. What High-Challenge Behavior do you want to focus on? What ideas do you have for specific, methodical, and consistent practices that would bake this behavior into a ritual or habit (think consistency and volume over time)?
4. What High-Support Behavior do you want to focus on? What ideas do you have for specific, methodical, and consistent practices that would bake this behavior into a ritual or habit (think consistency and volume over time)?
We believe true excellence is found in the ongoing combination of challenge and support–we need both, in abundance. The best organizations are intentional about baking both into the culture. They have specific practices that are ritualized and made into habits, not left to chance that they will be done. And the best leaders do not take this for granted. They know that high-performing culture is not a destination you arrive at; rather, it is a never-ending process of becoming that requires consistent reinforcement as the operating environment evolves and new members join the team.