Support and Challenge

supportive – adjective – providing encouragement or emotional help. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)
challenging – adjective – testing one’s abilities; demanding. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Bill Gates

Bill Gates
(source: Microsoft)

As leaders we should seek to motivate and empower our followers by providing them with the right balance of support and challenge to motivate them to outperform and be the best they can be. Demonstrate your belief in their abilities, give them the support they need and they will do their best to justify your faith.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
Bill Gates

The name of this site – Support and Challenge – was inspired by some learning review sessions we did on the Ashridge Leadership Workshop. The idea behind the reviews was to have a discussion with 2 other attendees to review the day’s learning, to identify key messages for us as individuals and to think about how we might put that into practise in our own environments. The discussions were to be both supportive and challenging.

Support and Challenge Grid

Support and Challenge

A conversation which is neither supportive nor challenging is not worth having. This could be described as apathetic communication. Without the support and challenge there is no real engagement, no caring, no motivation, no energy and ultimately no point.

A conversation in which there is lots of challenge but no support is going to be a highly stressful situation. This could be described as aggressive communication. Highly challenging situations which are not supportive will lead to individuals feeling criticised and becoming defensive. This will not be motivating for all but the strongest, most self-resilient people. It also demonstrates a lack of care. At a surface level, it might look like you are engaged because you are challenging. But if you are not being supportive, the impression you will give is that you are not fully invested in the outcomes. If you are truly interested in the outcome then you will not only be challenging, but also supportive and will be prepared to invest your own, time, energy and commitment.

A conversation which is supportive, but not challenging might be a very nice conversation to have, but it won’t move anything forward or bring about any change. This could be described as comforting communication. Highly supportive situations which are not challenging will lead to individuals feeling good but also feeling like they have done enough and don’t need to do any more, or even that there is no opportunity for them to progress. Indeed, paradoxically, such a conversation could leave them feeling like you don’t have confidence in them – even though you are being fully supportive, you can come across as not interested in the individual as you are not presenting them with any challenges.

A conversation which is both supportive and challenging should be one in which all parties are fully engaged. This could be described as active and committed communication. Individuals who are challenged, but feel supported at the same time will feel motivated to achieve. They know there are opportunities to improve and also feel that you are invested in the outcome. Challenging in a supportive way give the individual confidence that you have faith in their abilities and motivates them to be their best.

Do you have the right balance between support and challenge in your one-to-ones, reviews and retrospectives? Do you foster a supportive and challenging culture in your organisation?

About Sam Meldrum

Sam Meldrum is a Partner at Barnett Waddingham LLP where he leads the IT team. I have an interest in leadership, business, economics, technology, Christianity, running, cycling​ and photography. You can find my other stuff on the web by visiting​ or follow me on Twitter: @SamMeldrum.
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2 Responses to Support and Challenge

  1. Tom Meldrum says:

    I have this Support and Challenge model pinned up by my desk – thanks for sharing Sam. Did you come up with the model or did it come from your Ashridge Leadership Workshop? It is a really useful reminder of what happens when either element is lacking.

  2. Sam Meldrum says:

    That’s great Tom – I’m glad it’s helpful. It was from the Ashridge course not something I came up with.

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