Knowledge Center: Article

Human Resources Officers

Teams need robust challenge to thrive

1/30/2018 TA Mitchell

Teams need robust challenge to thrive

Do you have a nagging suspicion that your work team has some issues? You’re not alone.

It should go without saying that the goal of a team is to develop better ideas together. We have studied the dynamics and interactions of thousands of teams, and we’ve found that one of the most common struggles among teams of all sizes and levels is creating an environment of “robust challenge”—that is, one characterized by high levels of support and challenge.

Casting support and challenge into a four-quadrant matrix,1 we find that too many teams end up in the “stress zone,” where feelings of support are low and the challenges are sky-high (see figure). Teams here are exceedingly critical of one another’s work and ideas, thus creating a hostile environment in which people build walls around themselves and progress is paralyzed. At the other end of the spectrum, many teams dwell in the “comfort zone,” receiving such an excess of uncritical support that ideas go unchallenged and the team underperforms. The worst of both worlds is when team members “zone out,” neither inspired by challenge nor supportive of one another.

A team that succeeds in creating an environment of robust challenge operates in the “growth zone.” These teams don’t challenge for the sake of challenge, nor do they offer aimless support; instead, they use challenge and support to get to a decision. This behavior allows these teams to build momentum, use feedback for growth, and inspire team members to strive for better.

What can HR leaders do to build better teams?

We have used this quadrant exercise with many teams to determine where the team currently operates and flesh out the specific actions it can take to move toward the growth zone. Recently, one client realized that one of its sales teams was stuck in the stress zone. The exercise helped the team members understand that their environment was hostile because they lacked a shared agenda; just getting enough consensus to make a decision was getting in the way of the team’s progress. The team members each also had a different interpretation of the meaning of silence; the more vocal members of the group believed that silence meant agreement, while the others used silence to stop the debate—and then went away and followed their own agenda.

To move the team toward the growth zone, the team leader revitalized focus on the team’s shared agenda, restructuring incentives and encouraging members to shift troubling behaviors. If members delivered on the shared goals, they all benefited; if they did not, they sacrificed their bonuses. The leader also secured individual coaching for team members to ensure that they were both supporting and challenging their colleagues appropriately—including checking in when fellow team members went silent. These actions contributed to an increase in cross-sales volume from 4% to 16% in nine months, putting the team back on track to realize its business plan in three years.

Getting to the growth zone

Teams that operate in the growth zone do several things well: they positively confront one another, hold each other accountable, challenge assumptions, and give honest feedback with positive intent. To determine which of these areas need work, consider performing this exercise with your team:

Using the support and challenge matrix as your guide, take the following four steps:

1. Consider the four boxes of the matrix and ask the following:

  • What would it look—and feel—like to work in each of these zones?
  • What behaviors would we experience?

2. Review how your team currently works together, the zone you perceive yourselves to be in most of the time, and the behaviors experienced. Discuss your experience by asking the following:

  • How does each member personally contribute to creating this climate?
  • What behavioral feedback do others provide to contribute to the current climate? What helps and what doesn’t?

3. Consider what sorts of interactions and behaviors would create a growth-zone environment for the team—i.e., a high-support/high-challenge working environment.

4. As a team, commit to applying these growth-zone behaviors as team norms and to receiving both reinforcing and developmental feedback as a team.

About the author

TA Mitchell ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the Leadership Consulting Practice.

A version of this article was originally published by Changeboard.


1 This matrix is adapted from Nevitt Sanford’s “challenge and support” model. See Self and Society: Social Change and Individual Development, 2nd edition, New York: Routledge, 2017.

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