Challenge is about stretching and not staying still. We may not always want to feel challenged in all areas of our lives – like our relationships – but we often look to work to keep us engaged. That’s where we get into a state that psychologists call “flow” – the experience of being absorbed in something, in the moment – and this tends to lead to new learning.
The trick for employees is to find the right balance between challenges and skills – and this is hugely important in teams. Are you challenging your teams to stretch themselves or is their work too boring? This becomes part of the process of managing people’s growth.
Sometimes when corporates go through a bad patch, I see them respond by layering on the challenge. The KPIs become more ambitious and the things that haven’t been achieved are communicated about harder. That’s understandable but when they’re already stressed, it just sends people into a panic — and eventually apathy. I know that’s hard for leaders when they’re concerned about their business and things aren’t going well, but it doesn’t serve them to set more stringent targets and squeeze people harder. Because at these times it’s unleashing human energy and human potential that will get them through.
The best way is to challenge with care
To understand your colleagues, your employees and set goals with them, and to mark the achievement of these goals. You can’t just continually challenge. All too often, employers keep pushing and extracting out of their people. So, there’s no time for renewal or recovery, to connect on purpose, to feel re-inspired and to step back and think about how to do things differently.
If goals are set for you, you’re going to have less motivation to reach them. One of the things I recommend to organisations is asking individuals to reflect on the areas they want to progress. The focus on individuals identifying their own goals is a different spin on the typical performance review. It’s not so much about jumping through the company’s hoops as it is about charting your own journey.
By doing this you’re promoting autonomy — and the psychological experience that any successes are mine because I decided that I wanted to achieve in this area. I’ll go out and seek feedback from people close to me because it’s important to me. This lets people hear the feedback with more openness and energy to use it.
Then, create a safe space for your employees to develop
The world of work isn’t good at recognising failure as a learning opportunity. And yet there are no wrong moves when you’re being creative, even realising you’ve reached a dead end. The key is to create a safe space.
Companies can create what I call, “guardrails” – while encouraging people to try new things, try to keep mistakes to a minimum and recognise them as growth opportunities. The biggest mistake employers can make is to allow teams to run ill-defined projects. Be clear about what the North Star goal is, and how you’re trying to get there. Always build accountability into the creative process.
And, remember to celebrate all your achievements
In workplaces, we’re good at looking to the future to discuss how far we’ve got to go. Yet, we also need to celebrate how far we’ve come. Shout-outs are great, but there is something even more energising about doing it as a team rather than just your line manager saying something to you. Emotions are contagious, so we feel the positivity of each other’s achievements if we discuss them as a group.
There are some organisations whose culture is so busy they’re running from one thing to the next. I encourage these companies to slow down and pay attention to what’s working – for example by sharing peer-to-peer thank-yous in weekly team meetings. This practice lets them mark their achievements and garner energy from the successes of others.
It’s also great to catch micro successes, not just wait for the huge ones. Work is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep your people both challenged and engaged at every step.