A waiter walks up to your table with a tray loaded with beverages. You watch as she labors under the tray resting on her shoulder and upward palm. She whips the tray around and distributes the glasses in a way that doesn’t disrupt the balance of order. Someone at the table is eager and sees his drink on the tray. He removes it. One helpful bloke tries to assist and starts taking the closest glass to pass to someone. However, this disrupts the balance and the tray tips…drinks spill, glasses break. Someone jumps out of the way. This metaphorical tray and glasses are filled with doses of challenge and support. Hmmmmm, what does challenge and support taste like? What kind of beverages might those be?
This concept of challenge and support is a popular theory among those of us who study and use college student development theories. This professor, Dr. Nevitt Sanford, wrote a book in 1967 about Why Colleges Fail, in which he outlines his precept of challenge and support. He offered that challenge provides an opportunity to stretch and grow. The student tries to reduce the tension and restore balance. Good challenge is helpful and creates a will to accomplish, even through a bit of discomfort. The rewards of that “a ha” moment of understanding is the payoff. However, too much challenge may set the bar artificially high and make it impossible. This could be overwhelming and the person opts to quit. Support has similar conditions to consider. No support, or too little support, risks sending a message of a lack of respect and or little concern. Too much support means we have just done it for them, and could stifle creativity (or challenge). Being afraid to challenge is like stealing the opportunity to overcome an obstacle and learn. We steal the victory. Therefore, using a challenge and support framework relies on timing, magnitude, and application. Interesting note here, we interviewed a group of students and they brought up making mistakes and the adviser/teacher/leader should let them fail on occasion. “How else will we learn?” They asked with poignant clarity.
That tray with drinks is balanced with precision that is somehow understood by the waiter holding the tray. If we deliver challenge or support at the wrong time, or to the wrong person, it could have ramifications for those involved. We have to quickly weigh the benefits of the use and how much (or how little) we deliver based on experience, relationships, and timing. What is also at play are the nonverbal and emotional content that accompany every single interaction with another person. What seems to be trivial comments, unrealized sighs, or unintentional nonverbal moments could be misinterpreted and hinder mutual transformation. We might not even realize those little shot glasses were even on the tray to begin with. These talents contribute to our ability to provide leadership when it is our time to step into the foreground.
While this challenge and support theory is presented as a student development thing it also has leadership implications. Management is what we do TO things, situations, and things. It is managing to get the right tray to the right table. Leadership is what we do WITH people. What we deliver is important, but HOW and WHEN we deliver our tray of refreshment is so very important.
Ready and Wait
It seems as if the only one participating in the delivery of challenge and/or support is the teacher or leader. There is a bit of a power differential at play here. The responsibility for thinking about how to use challenge and support is more leader dependent than recipient. However, this timing concept could be more a mutual thing. We have heard that “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Interesting note, I found that the Buddha did not say this. A woman in 1875 (Helena Blavansky) combined some eastern and western religious works and wrote versions of this saying proverb. But I digress (again), Sanford presented this idea of readiness and said that the student needs to be ready for the situation as well. We could get a little existential about readiness for lessons or teaching. Let’s just know that any time is not always a perfect time. This brings us to what I think is also an important part of challenge and support — WAIT. No, not the wait staff….just, wait! We need to wait to see if our glass of challenge/support worked. We need to wait to see if it was appreciated. We need to wait to see if the person will acknowledge our part in their development. That could take 5 minutes….and we could wait forever. We can’t control that part. Really, at this point it isn’t about us. It is about the student.
Numerator or denominator
The reciprocal of challenge and support is probably…well support and challenge. Those students, followers, mutual leaders in the group will be teaching us things as well. It is ok to be the student who is ready when your teacher appears. This leadership thing has something to do with having the ability to accept the mutual experience of learning together. Our process as a leader is a constant experience of practice. Support comes from those we work with – which may be too much or too little. And the same is true with how others challenge us. Accept both as times to learn and grow. Don’t discount personal challenge and support either – we do tend to be our harshest critic. What have you challenged yourself to do or learn? How do you support your mental health and celebrate your wins? Avoid being that irrational number or the improper fraction – for others, from others, for yourself.