Creating Healthy Challenges During Challenging Times

Jeanet Wade
February 16, 2021

“Leaders courageous enough to apply pressure and make people temporarily uncomfortable help them meet human needs they didn’t even know they had.” ~ From The Human Team, coming February 2021 (Order and get the Downloads)

Human beings are hardwired to strive. We find meaning in stretch goals and high aspirations, we get fired up by taking on tough assignments and “impossible” missions. It’s part of our nature.

The past year hasn’t exactly been short on challenges, so you might think that now might not be the best time to challenge your team. But when you do it in a healthy way this is the perfect opportunity to raise morale by raising the bar.

It’s likely that no one on your team is asking for a challenge right now. Only team members who possess a growth mindset are likely to ask for challenges even in the most “normal” of circumstances and this year has offered very little in the way of “normal” circumstances. And yet, pretty much every time I’ve been part of mentoring or managing someone who was given a tough challenge what I heard was, “Thank you, that was exactly the push I needed.”

The truth is that without challenge we naturally become complacent. We’re designed to either strive, coast, or stress, so people who aren’t challenged might, even unconsciously, fall into a pattern of just going through the motions, keeping the boat afloat but not really rowing very hard.

For some people a lack of challenge that causes stress because they don’t feel significant if they aren’t striving to reach their potential. Those folks may have a tendency to overcompensate by bragging on old achievements, focusing on titles or status, or “pulling rank.”

None of us want our teams to become disengaged or complacent, nor do we want a pissing match over who has contributed more or has more influence so we want to make sure people feel challenged. But we also know what if people aren’t challenged in a healthy, supportive way they’re likely to fall prey to unsustainable stress, finger pointing, or emotional withdrawal.

So how do you make sure that your teams feel challenged and that they also feel supported? Start with how you frame the challenge. When a challenge is properly framed it sends three core messages that lift sprits and set people up for success. First, it says, “I believe you have the potential for something greater.” Second, it says, “I’m betting on you to achieve any mission you accept.” And third, it says, “The company is willing to invest in your future.”

Can you imagine how much a team who has weathered the storms of 2020 needs to hear those messages right now?

Of course, it isn’t enough to frame the challenge in a way that increases morale. You have to also have a framework in place to support them through the challenges you’ve offered. The 6 Facets of Human Needs™ is a good starting place because if any of the other needs on that list aren’t being met it can cause your efforts to backfire.  

Once you feel you’re meeting the other needs (Clarity, Connection, Contribution, Consideration, and Confidence) here are some additional questions you need to consider before challenging your team individually or as a group.

1.     How much trust is shared between members of the team and between the team and leadership?

No challenge can be offered or supported in a healthy way if there is no trust between the people offering the challenge and the people who will have to meet the challenge.

2.     How will you support the process?

Do you have mentors, coaches, consultants, or other resources already in place to offer support? Have you accounted for resources that will be required in order to meet the challenge?

3.     How will you handle and support interpersonal dynamics such as collaboration and conflict?

No healthy challenge is one that can be met in total isolation. People need to feel connected and to know they are contributing to something bigger. But that means you need to decide in advance how you’ll handle it when efforts combine and opinions differ.

4.     How will you measure performance and progress?

When we set our sights on something big we need to know when we’re making progress, when we could be doing better, and when we’ve lost our way. Part of making a challenge a healthy one is to provide fair, consistent, and regular feedback.

Far from being the wrong time to challenge your team, right now when most of us are tired of curve balls and a world gone topsy-turvy, a challenge that is designed around growth and achievement rather than coping or surviving is actually a much-needed energy injection.

As you’re working on strategy and goals for 2021 I hope you’re setting your sights on something really inspiring, engaging your team in the mission, and setting up healthy challenges. I’m happy to talk about what that looks like, it’s as easy scheduling a meeting on my calendar.