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The Challenge of Support

The Challenge of Support

By Patrick Pruett

My first child left our ‘nest’ this fall as he was approaching the next milestone in his life (and ours too) as a University of Tennessee freshman. It’s an exciting time that brings an awful lot of, “I can’t believe it happened so fast” conversations and advice about staying focused on his education. As his parents we are preparing for the difficult decisions that will inevitably come regarding the challenges he will face, and the amount of ongoing support that will need to be provided.

In a professional context, this same scenario of reaching milestones, overcoming challenges, and providing support is continuously transpiring with professionals in any company. People spend time working for a company with the hope of progressing in their career, while their leaders and mentors work to hopefully provide an environment that allows them to be successful.

For this career progression to work successfully, both sides need to work to find the right blend of challenge and support that creates a positive, growth-minded culture for everyone. Challenge with no support is a recipe for failure, and likewise, providing too much support with little to no challenge leaves everyone disappointed.

Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support, which dates to 1962, says that for growth to occur, a person needs a balanced amount of challenge and support as appropriate for the task. In addition, a person must be ready – physically and psychologically – to be able to grow.

Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support


According to Sanford, when a person is given too much support (A in the accompanying graphic) they fail to learn; when they are given too little support (B in the graphic) they tend to get frustrated and quit trying.

Likewise, when a person becomes overly challenged they can feel frustrated and deflated, but with no challenge, a person can begin to feel bored. Many leaders’ today struggle with this tension that is created through their growth development process.

So how can we, as leaders, determine the right balance for providing support and challenges in the workplace?

First, it is important to understand that everyone comes with unique backgrounds, differing degrees of training, and personal bias developed from the time they were born. A person’s level of readiness needs to be understood and placed into context, which puts a premium on getting to know, in a significant way, that person individually. Creating a win/win relationship then becomes easier and more manageable.

The level of support and challenge each person needs, or can take on, can vary significantly. When a firm takes the time to examine the nuances that exist among team members, it promotes a positive culture and a successful retention.

Next, companies need to determine what is needed and required from a learning and development perspective. This requires that they put thought into the process of their growth development program. It begins with knowing and understanding the culture and the types of people who are going to work well in the environment surrounding them.

Here are six strategies any firm can implement when working on their growth development culture.

Workplace survey: Survey and interview the team to gain insight into the current support/challenge culture. Receive input and allow for their suggestions to be implemented.

Workstyle profiles: Prior to hiring new staff, conduct workstyle and behavioral assessments. This allows the person being considered for the position a good chance of fitting with the culture and what is required of the role. Company leaders and employees benefit from gaining initial insights into their personality and communication styles, and can understand early on how to effectively communicate with each other.

Broaden job place experience: Allowing employees to try different things and express themselves in different ways will assist in getting to know their skill levels, aptitude for certain kinds of work, comfort level with challenging work, and individual needs for support.

Mentors: Workplace mentors can play a meaningful role in providing guidance, measuring success, knowing the individuals personally, understanding where people are in their development, and advocating to leaders regarding any adjustments – such as increase challenge, provide more support – that need to be made.

Skill development resource: In addition to the technical and/or job-specific skills that every employee must develop, there are personal skills they must grasp. These include areas like project management, communication, leadership, business development, client service and an endless array of other topics. These may be known as ‘soft skills’, but they are most definitely ‘hard-to-master skills’ that require major effort to become proficient.

Very often an outside partner can work with a company to provide staff development expertise. It is important that the right resource is chosen to be able to challenge individuals (and the company) at all levels, while also providing the correct amount of support to make the partnership successful.

Work accountability: Having a culture in which team members answer to their work goals and activities is an important piece of getting things done as an organization, as well as providing individuals with challenges they agree to meeting. Overcommitted leaders too often fail to set regular meetings with people on the team to discuss their work, their challenges and the amount of support they need to be able to succeed.

For firm growth to occur, the right amount of support and challenge for each employee is needed. If your firm is struggling with finding the right balance, know you are not alone.

It is worth stating the obvious here: people are the greatest investment and asset for any company. Unlike other capital investments though, they require a two-way working dialogue to help determine the level of understanding and commitment from both sides. Everyone on the team needs to know what is expected, be able to thrive in the challenge, and trust in the support.


Patrick PruettPatrick Pruett is executive vice president The Rainmaker Companies. He helps accounting firms around the world by facilitating connections among members, providing consultative support and delivering high quality resources that enable firms to better compete and improve the management of their practices.