Challenge and Support: The Grit and Grace of People Development

Most leaders would agree that one of their main tasks is to develop their people.  Yet many would also agree that a) they don’t do enough of it and b) they don’t feel confident that they do it well.  As a result, there’s often an unfortunate lack of attention paid to this critical aspect of leadership.

The results? Leaders find themselves stuck in the ‘doing trap.’  Their people can’t seem to get the job done without them, so they can’t extract themselves from the tasks of day- to-day delivery.  But this is a vicious cycle – as the leader stays involved in task execution, her people don’t grow, which then prevents her from letting go of her involvement in the task. The leader is so busy ‘doing’ that she can’t find time to attend to strategy, process, people and systems – the very things that could elevate her team’s performance to the next level.

The only way out of the ‘doing trap’ is for a leader to actively attend to the growth and development of her staff.  Unfortunately, most leaders have not been taught how to think about how to grow people, much less how to do it.

Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and researcher at Harvard, has discovered that people grow with a combination of two essential ingredients: challenge and support. It’s a simple but profound construct.  Challenge is the ‘grit’ side of the equation.  Challenge – in the forms of corrective feedback, a stretch assignment, an increase in responsibility, a new topic area – is what causes us to change. Just like lifting weights strengthens us by applying productive stress to our muscles, so an appropriate challenge can strengthen our performance at work.

Because challenge is a ‘grit’ action, grit-based leaders tend to be naturals at providing it.  But too much challenge can throw someone into a state of panic, where unproductive fear takes over and learning stops.  It’s like asking someone to go from bench-pressing 50 lbs. to 150 lbs. in one session.  Failure and a setback in confidence are the likely results.

So challenge must be balanced with support, which is the ‘grace’ side of the equation. Support comes in many forms: a doable stretch, positive feedback, delegation with built-in safety nets, mentoring and instruction, clear guidelines, etc.  It provides enough safety for the employee to stay out of the panic zone and inhabit a more productive ‘stretch’ zone that maximizes learning.

Grace-based leaders have a natural tendency to provide support.  But beware!  Too much support can make life so comfortable for employees that they don’t grow.  This is as serious a leadership error as inflicting too much challenge; it can just as easily stop development in its tracks.

The magic lies in the blend. But how do you know whether you’ve got the ‘right’ blend of challenge and support? The answer lies in the result.  Pay attention to what mixture seems to result in the best quality work and strongest motivation in each person.  Some employees will light up and produce like crazy like in the face of a challenge.  Others will wilt.  For some, the smallest praise will spur them to new heights, while others will see praise as the ‘fluffy stuff’ that comes before the ‘real’ feedback.

Here’s the catch.  It’s impossible to bring this balance of challenge and support to your employees if you haven’t developed a good balance of grit and grace within yourself.  This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of developing others – that it requires us to first develop in ourselves the versatility and range to bring each employee exactly what he or she needs in order to grow.

What about you?

Are you naturally more grit-based or grace-based?

How does that preference impact the way you develop your people?  Do you tend to grow your people more with challenge or support?

With whom does that seem to work?  With whom are you missing the mark?

Think of one person for whom your balance of challenge and support doesn’t seem to be the best fit.  Identify which aspect you think they need more of from you.  Shift your approach in that direction and see what happens.  And let us know!



2 replies
  1. Andrew Ponce
    Andrew Ponce says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your concept of challenge and support, but there is one element that was not addressed, that is, the fear of failure. All the support in the world cannot prevent the occasional failure, and managers have to be willing to let staff fail and then support them to recover from the failure. But more importantly, managers cannot step in too much or too soon for fear of failure, because then they remove the possibility that the staff member might succeed beyond the manager’s expectations.

  2. leslie.williams
    leslie.williams says:

    Andrew, thanks for this great point. All challenge comes with some risk of failure – otherwise it wouldn’t constitute a challenge. And the manager definitely has to be able to tolerate the anxiety of that – as well as to take intelligent risks in the first place. I love your point that allowing an employee to fail also opens up the possibility that he/she could exceed all expectations. Thanks so much for commenting!


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