Do you sometimes think that you are too soft in your leadership approach? Are people tending to abuse both your helpful nature and your willingness to give them a second, third or fourth chance? Or are you getting feedback that your leadership style is way too demanding – people might throw around terms such as ‘abrasive,’ ‘direct’ or behind your back ‘tyrant’ or worse, ‘bully’?
If you recognise either of these scenarios it would appear that you currently have a critical leadership balance that is somewhat out of whack. Your supportive side is outweighing your challenging side, or you are being too challenging and insufficiently supportive. Both lead to problems and thankfully, both can be easily remedied. This article will help you understand:
- your ‘typical’ balance of challenge and support
- the changes you can make towards a more effective balance
- why flexibility is so important
Not an exact science
Whilst the idea can be traced back to Nevitt Sanford’s work (1962) that a combination of support and challenge promotes growth, there is little empirical evidence to suggest exactly what the best blend of challenge and support should be to illicit development in someone. However, if we accept that growth stalls in an environment which is either too tough and demanding, or too soft and cosy, then we can take some time to look at how you manage to create the best environment for people to flourish and develop.
Start with one
In my experience the key to striking the right balance in terms of the degrees of support and challenge you apply, rests on your understanding of the individuals that you lead. The first person you need to understand better is you.
What are the reasons you are tending to lead in the way that you do? It is possible you are too supportive because you think that is the most effective way to get the best from people or you are concerned that if you are too demanding that you will have to face conflict from people in your team. It could be that your experience of other leaders throughout your career has been of domineering, highly directive types and you have assumed that is how you need to be. Whatever the rationale for you leading as you do, understanding yourself as a leader is almost always the first port of call.
For what it’s worth: As an observation of work with hundreds of senior leaders, the balance, if any, tends to lean more frequently towards insufficiently challenging.
In tandem with greater levels of self-awareness, the level of understanding you have for each member of your ‘team’ will impact the level of challenge and support you can apply effectively. Deep knowledge that appreciates both the individual, whilst being really mindful of their current state, works best. For example, take Mike who is generally robust and has demonstrated high levels of resilience to your challenges of his performance in the past but who is currently struggling with the recent death of his father. Mike may well require additional support from you (Note: he may or may not need less challenge!) Or take Mariana, historically quite a meek woman in your experience, she has just successfully led a major proposal with senior players in her project team: She may well benefit from some increased challenge to build on the current momentum she has (Note: She may or may not need ongoing high levels of support from you.)
Based on highly individualised knowledge of the members of your team, here are a number of example factors that will increase how much challenge you are applying:
– Increase the complexity of a given task you want resolved
– Reduce the time-scales required
– Improve the quality of output required
– Deepen levels of detail expected
– Raise the status of the audience of any output for a task
Where you need to increase support you can work towards the opposites of the list above. You could also seek to spend more time understanding the individual human being that works ‘for’ you, deepening the relationship. You can also provide support by getting more involved yourself but there is a danger in that approach, which I have written about often. I would avoid that unless it is *in extremis* because it can lead to you getting too involved in the operational side of your work.
So, in order to get the very best out of those in your team, you need to be aware of the support you are supplying and the challenge your are applying at all times. People (often your “go-to” people) may need you to reduce the challenge after extended periods of high demand, similarly, those who have been cut some slack, may now need you to increase the heat but don’t make such changes on the hoof discuss it with each individual to check that your assessment of them is correct before you change gears.
Dr Glenn P Wallis is a leadership consultant who helps organisations improve key performance results through developing highly effective leaders. If you would like Glenn to help you develop your leadership bench, contact him here. Thank you.