Teams need challenges to thrive

Written by
TA Mitchell
Heidrick & Struggles

12 Dec 2017

12 Dec 2017 • by TA Mitchell

Do you have a nagging suspicion that your work team has some issues? You’re not alone. Here’s an exercise any team can use to improve.
This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidricks' Managing Partner Colin Price in conversation with Aviva's CEO, Mark Wilson, at
Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018.

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 characterised by high levels of support and challenge.
Casting support and challenge into a four-quadrant matrix, 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 image at top of article, Figure 1).

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 paralysed.

At the other end of the spectrum, many teams live in the “comfort zone,” with such an excess of 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 behaviour 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 realised that one of its teams was operating in the stress zone. We performed this exercise with the team members and realised that the team environment was hostile because its members lacked a shared agenda; just getting enough consensus to make a decision was getting in the way of making any progress.

The team leader took [this action to correct the behaviour]. As a result, the team achieved [what]. <How did they know they’d improved, or how could we show that they did?> 

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:
Draw the grid in Figure 1 on a poster-sized flip chart, and then follow 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 behaviours 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 behaviours experienced. Discuss your experience in terms of:

  • How does each member personally contribute to creating this climate?
  • What behavioural feedback do others provide to contribute to the current climate. What helps and what doesn’t?
3. What sorts of interactions and behaviours would create a “growth zone” environment for the team - i.e., a high support/high challenge working environment. We offer examples of what creates a growth zone in Figure 1. Capture these on a flip chart.
4. As a team, commit to applying those behaviours as team norms and to receiving both reinforcing and developmental feedback as a team.

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About the author

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

Heidrick & Struggles