Stretch vs Support

This is the third part of a 12-part series featuring snippets from our new book, Team by Team. The only team building book ever written by the actual team. You can buy the ebook here.

Articles in this series:

  1. Selfishness: The Key to Teamwork
  2. Failing Forwards

How trust is built, kept and lost

Most organisations aspire to have employees who feel confident both in seeking support and in taking risks. For a leader, this can be a tricky balance to strike and it is valuable to be aware of the problems that can arise if one approach is achieved without the other. Here, we will look at the negative impact of supporting a team without also stretching them. Whether you are a new leader or working with new team members, it is important to think about the long term impact of your approach.

Building trust

In the early days of a relationship, it is absolutely right to focus on supportive behaviours. Team dynamics and personal relationships are developing, and this is when people are getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. At this stage, an aggressively driving or challenging approach risks damaging new relationships and could increase the potential for future conflicts.

Maintaining trust

After the initial phase, the balancing act begins. Whether dealing with a large team or a single individual, it is important to understand what appropriate support looks like, according to the specific situation. Remember that being overly supportive of an under-performer can be as counterproductive as overstretching someone who is giving their best and overlooking the specific issue that is hindering them. Being supportive in the early days builds a positive foundation but understanding, in the long term, the appropriate level at which to pitch this support is the art of maintaining that trust. Employees need to feel challenged as well as helped.

“Employees need to feel challenged as well as helped.”

Losing trust

Many of us will have experienced leaders who undermined themselves by being too dominating and demanding but what about those who aren’t driving enough? It is easy to lose the trust and respect of team members by responding
inappropriately to a situation. Whether an approach is too supportive or too challenging, both can compromise a team’s trust in their leader.

What does this mean?

Sadly, there is no magic formula for getting the balance right. Investing time in relationships and understanding the people around us is key. Making good decisions about when to offer understanding and support and when to push people to do more, to do better or to do it faster is a tough skill and one of the cornerstones of highly effective leadership. One question to always ask ourselves is, what is the back story? Responding to the behaviours we see is easy enough, but the best leaders understand the motivation, effort and context behind a specific situation and can react appropriately.

Saying no is an important tool

As a leader, we need to constantly readjust our position on the spectrum between supporting and stretching our team. We also need to accept that we won’t always get this right. So much is said about creating feelings of safety within a team, but perhaps we should also consider the psychological safety of the leaders themselves. A great leader should feel secure enough in their relationships with the team to be firm when needed and to call out when performance is not good enough. And – perhaps trickiest of all – if we get it wrong, are we secure enough to admit it?iw


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