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Challenge and Support Dials - supercharging performance

When getting on my soapbox about the role of compassion in creating high performance, one of the concepts I find myself often bringing up, is that of the challenge and support dials.


When people hear compassion, they tend to imagine it infers a soft and fluffy approach, where people are molly-coddled and indulged. That’s not what I am referring to. Take elite sport as an example which can be translated to any environment where there is a pursuit of excellence at the core. Being an elite athlete is hard, and it should be damn hard. The discipline and determination to push yourself to physical and mental limits, day in, day out; Picking yourself up after innumerable failures and defeats; Constantly looking to reinvent and renew your approaches to stay ahead of your competitors. There is no getting away from that reality if you want to make it at the elite level. If you take the easy way, stopping before it gets too painful, or letting the failures get the better of you, then you likely won’t achieve high performance. So, a compassionate approach can’t be about going soft like that.


What does compassion in high performance mean then? Well, it’s all about matching levels of support to the level challenge, and since we know that high performance involves incredible challenge, then so it goes that it also requires incredible support.


This finding from a piece of research by Mckinsey & Company around psychological safety speaks directly to what I mean by this-


“…challenging leadership encourages employees to do more than they initially think they can. A challenging leader asks team members to reexamine assumptions about their work and how it can be performed in order to exceed expectations and fulfill their potential. Challenging leadership has previously been linked with employees expressing creativity, feeling empowered to make work-related changes, and seeking to learn and improve. However, the survey findings show that the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team climate, through frequent supportive and consultative actions, and then challenges their team; without a foundation of positive climate, challenging behaviors have no significant effect.


That last sentence should hit like a bucket of ice water for any high-performance traditionalists. Mickinsey & Company found that in the context of the workplace, high challenge without a positive foundation is ineffective. In elite sport I would suggest that it can be effective – just look at any one of the toxic high-performance environments that have been exposed the last few years - but it has a host of unacceptable, negative side-effects. As I see it, an environment characterised as high challenge-low support leads to people feeling unvalued, anxious, threatened, uncertain, and eventually to burnout, or dropout because it’s simple not worth it anymore.


In contrast, when you provide the support to match the challenge, you have the ingredients for people to truly thrive while striving to achieve more. In fact, far from letting people get away with less, you can push people harder if you also give them all the support they could need to succeed and not to get burnt out mentally or physically.




What that support looks like will be different depending on the context, but things like – having leadership with a strong moral compass and a holistic philosophy; appropriate training for the job at hand; opportunities to strengthen connections with team members; 1-1 performance coaching or psychological support; healthy physical conditions and opportunities to be physically active.


So, the reason why I see compassion as being so pivotal, is that I think we are still miles away from unleashing our full potential, in sport, business, or wherever people show up and want to perform. Where we are lacking is in the scope and quality of our support of the performers. We have mastered the challenge part, but now we need to super charge that with compassion.


So back to those two dials. Just remember this – you can turn the challenge dial right up, if you also turn up the support dial.

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