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Leading With Support and Challenge

Most of us perform at our best at work when we have the right mixture of support and challenge. This could be from our leaders, colleagues, or even stakeholders. But getting this mix right is crucial. Too much of either and not enough of the other could significantly impact our performance, not to mention our stress levels and love for our role.

But how can we create a culture that leads with support and challenge? And how do we get this balance right?

In this blog, leadership coach Ian shares his thoughts and touches on the all-important support challenge matrix.


The Support Challenge Matrix

The support challenge matrix shown below was developed by Ian Day and John Blakey and shared in their book ‘Challenging Coaching’.

The Support Challenge Matrix

Made up of four quadrants, we can see that:

  • Low challenge and low support = inertia/apathy. In this quadrant, we’re unlikely to interact with our people, nor are we likely to take any action. In this scenario, not much learning will occur within the organisation, which can lead to disengaged teams and higher turnover rates.

  • Low challenge and high support = a space where people are ‘cosy’. In this quadrant, we’ll find that our people are dependent on us, they’ll require extra nurturing, and they’ll be comfortable. Although being comfortable in a role may seem ideal, it can lead to a lack of development and growth and have consequences in the broader organisation.

  • High challenge and low support = increasing stress at work. When we experience high levels of challenge at work but don’t receive as much support from our leaders or managers, we eventually experience greater stress. In the workplace, stress can lead to confrontation and can often create a culture in which our people are worried about taking risks due to a lack of support. As a result, they’ll be less likely to feel empowered and won’t be as willing to share their ideas or thoughts.

  • High challenge and high support = high performance. Unlike the three other quadrants, this fourth quadrant is an ideal space. When we leaders provide the right amount of support mixed with the right amount of challenge, we create a culture in which our people feel safe to explore their ideas without worrying what the consequences of something not going as planned may be. As an organisation, this combination of support and challenge leads to greater achievements, productivity, and happiness. It also encourages growth and development, not to mention teamwork, trust, and open communication.

As leaders, we best provide for our teams and people when we create a culture of support and high challenge. We can often encourage a ‘cosy club’ when we support without challenge. Likewise, when we challenge without support, we can create too much stress.

Ultimately, both scenarios reduce performance throughout the organisation.


Evaluating Where You Currently Are

As a leader, you may find yourself and your team in any of the four quadrants at different times, but what is important is to be aware of the four quadrants and where you are as a team.

Considering the above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is currently going on in your organisation?

  • Do your people seem engaged and motivated?

  • Do your people seem afraid of making mistakes?

  • How often do your people put forward new ideas?

  • Do your people express their concerns when it comes to making mistakes?

  • Where is your team currently?

  • Where are individuals currently?

  • Are your people experiencing cosy club, inertia, stress or high performance?


When answering these questions, be sure to make a note for each. In doing so, you can reflect on them and ponder why you may have the answers you have.

Once you’ve answered the above questions, it’s time to think about how your leadership plays a role in this.

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is high) for the support you provide; your default support setting?

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is high) for the level of challenge you provide; your default challenge setting?

What do you notice?

What would need to happen for you to increase each of these to where you would want them to be?

As another exercise, write down the names of the individuals you lead and write next to the names, a number out of 10 for the amount of support you provide that individual and another number out of 10 for the amount of challenge that you provide that individual.

What do you notice?

What actions could you take in the light of this?

What Is Your Current Leadership Style?

When we consider the different levels of support and challenge we provide to our teams, this also reflects back to us our current leadership style.

Here is an interesting question: what is it like to be led by you?

Leadership styles using the support challenge matrix

Just as the challenge-support matrix comprises four quadrants, the above one is too. But instead of sharing how a balance or imbalance of support and challenge impacts individuals and teams, this matrix shares leadership styles.

In the first quadrant, a leader providing low challenge and high support is often seen as an abdicator. This type of leader fosters a culture of apathy and low expectation.

In the second quadrant, we see that low challenge and high support create a leader seen as a protector. They develop a culture of co-dependency and often tolerate poor behaviours.

In the third quadrant, we have the dominator. Dominators challenge their people a lot but provide little support. As a result, their people often fear making mistakes. These leaders blame others when things go wrong; they judge when their people don’t get things ‘right’, and they control them.

Finally, we have the liberator. This leader provides a high level of support and challenge. As a result, they create a space in which their people feel empowered and safe. Here, they act in partnership with their people rather than ruling them. They act with meaning and purpose, and they encourage their team to grasp opportunities presented to them regardless of the outcome.

As you consider leading with support and challenge, ask yourself where you currently fit in this matrix. Are you an abdicator, a protector, a dominator, or a liberator?

If asked, where would your people put you in this matrix?

As you consider the answer to this question, remember that growing as a leader involves increasing our self-awareness and being able to embrace feedback. If you’re currently an abdicator, a protector, or a dominator, be honest with yourself. Then, take a step back and consider how you can move into the liberator section of the matrix.

What actions do you need to take as you move towards a greater liberator leadership style?

“One of the most important of all leadership skills is self-awareness.” - Robin Sharma


Increasing Support and Challenges in The Workplace

When a team faces new and complex challenges, it can be tempting to reduce the amount of challenge to meet the level of support that is available.

An alternative to this could be to increase the amount of support to meet the challenge. But by not increasing the amount of support in a challenging situation, there is a risk that teams and individuals will move into stress and reduce performance.

Therefore, it is essential to find a balance between support and challenge in the workplace to maintain productivity and engagement among employees.

One way to achieve this balance is by providing frequent feedback to employees, both positive and constructive. This allows employees to feel supported and acknowledged for their hard work while also receiving guidance on how to improve.

Another way to increase support is by providing resources and training to help employees develop their skills and knowledge. This can include mentoring programmes, leadership coaching, or courses.

On the other hand, challenges can be increased by setting ambitious goals and encouraging employees to take on new responsibilities and projects. This pushes employees to grow and develop their skills and gives them a sense of ownership and purpose in their work.

It is important to note that different individuals may require different levels of support and challenge. Therefore, managers need to create trust and openness and have honest conversations with their team members to understand their individual needs and tailor their approach.

By finding the right balance between support and challenge, teams can thrive in difficult and complex situations, leading to increased performance, productivity, and job satisfaction.

If increasing the amount of support you lead with is something that your people would benefit from, here are some ideas to place alongside your own:

  • Increase collaboration

  • Provide mentoring or coaching

  • Postpone work deadlines in some areas

  • Offer additional training based on the support your people require

  • Listen to your people and what they have to say

  • Show and have empathy

  • Set boundaries

  • Reduce or increase meeting times

  • Provide additional resources

What about the challenge? What could this look like? Here are some ideas:

  • Set courageous goals

  • Move and encourage your people to step outside of their comfort zones

  • Guarantee that your people feel empowered

  • Ask for innovation and risk-taking

  • Insist on greater levels of trust

  • Challenge poor behaviours

  • Ask what the real challenge is when an individual presents a problem

  • Do something that has not been attempted before

Working With A Leadership Coach

If you’ve been identified as an abdicator, protector, or dominator, working with a leadership coach can support you in determining how to work towards becoming a liberator. Leadership coaching can also help you in creating a culture of high performance where each member of your team thrives.

During one-to-one coaching, you’ll have the opportunity to receive feedback and better understand your strengths and areas for improvement. You’ll also find that you can learn new skills, adapt your behaviours, and navigate any challenges you’re facing in the workplace.

Contact Us Today

If you’re ready to lead with support and challenge, contact us today to learn how we can support you.

Our team of credible coaches have a wealth of experience working across various industries. Many have also worked within organisations and fully understand the challenges leaders often face.


Article written by Leadership Coach Ian White and updated by Rebekah.

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