It’s when we’re challenged that humans come alive. When we engage in a process of practice and improvement that will lead to true mastery, when we take on the (next to) impossible and make it possible, that’s when we’re inspired to innovate and to strive toward higher and higher goals.
But while it is true humans need to be challenged to activate their full potential, it is not true that all challenges are created equal. There are healthy challenges, and there are challenges that cause harm and lead to irreparable loss. A challenge can be constructive, building us up to greater strengths, reinforcing our confidence in future endeavors, and firing all the feel-good emotions and hormones. A challenge can also be destructive, resulting in overwhelm, burnout, and threatening to our mental and physical well-being.
We all know that in the wake of the pandemic we’re facing a new epidemic – toxicity in the places where we work. From the labels like “The Great Resignation” to “quiet quitting” to “WFH burnout” you might think this is a new phenomenon but scroll back to 2019 and you’ll find it was already prevalent, it just went by simpler names like “employee turnover,” “burnout,” or “disengagement.” The impact of toxic workplaces isn’t new, it’s just reached unignorable proportions. Even the U.S. Surgeon General has made a statement and offered official guidance from “America’s Doctor” on treating toxicity in the workplace.
As my colleague, Dr. Patricia Bagsby, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the Chaifetz School of Business at Saint Louis University, says “There’s a burnout spiral happening right now. We see leaders who are charged with trying to create results, often with fewer people and tighter budgets, while also trying to keep from increasing stress, burnout, and dissatisfaction on their teams. The pressure of meeting those expectations creates stress and burnout for the leader who then has even less energy and emotion to give to their team. And so the cycle goes.”
Breaking the Burnout Cycle
What is required to turn the challenges inherent in business growth into healthy challenges that humans can get their teeth into and really thrive? First, the challenge must be in the realm of innate abilities and real-world possibility. Certainly, it can be a stretch goal, it wouldn’t be challenging if it weren’t. But if it’s outside of capabilities and available resources we’re beaten before we begin.
Healthy challenges don’t start with do-or-die consequences. We must know that it’s safe to fall down a few times before we master the art of walking, or to trip a few times before we learn to sail over the hurdles and cross the finish line, or we’d never learn to walk, let alone run. The same is true of the challenges you deliver to your teams; they must have some space to fail before they’re called upon to put their ability to the ultimate test.
Most of all, a healthy challenge depends on all the other needs being met. Think about strength training, you challenge your body, and it responds by getting stronger. Until you overdo it, and the body responds by becoming weaker – unhealthy, damaged, even non-functional. And if the body was already struggling due to environmental, nutritional, or other inadequacies that breakdown happens even sooner.
Your teams aren’t any different. They are human, and they have human needs. If those aren’t being met it won’t matter if the end goal is doable or if people are allowed to stumble before they master running. A body can’t master sprinting or long distance running if it’s not provided with proper nutrition and hydration and your team can’t master the complexities of today’s business demands if they don’t have access to what they need to self-actualize as part of a human team. The reason this epidemic of burnout is so severe is that we, as humans, weren’t getting our needs met in the workplace when the crisis of the pandemic hit so we didn’t have the reserves to meet the resulting challenges of the last three years.
Human Needs for Self-Actualizing Team Potential
A big part of the problem is that leaders aren’t given tools for knowing what the humans on their team need or how to know if those needs are being met. In my book, The Human Team: So You Created a Team but People Showed Up, I share the framework I developed and use for building healthy, high-performing teams without burning out the people on those teams. This framework gives leaders a tool for observing, diagnosing, and addressing inadequacies in workplace structures that lead to dysfunction in much the way that inadequacies in nutrition or environment lead to dysfunction in the body. This framework, The Six Facets of Human Needs™, puts the need for experiencing Challenge after the need for Clarity, Connection, Consideration, and Contribution and demonstrates the need for Challenge as a prerequisite to meeting the need for Confidence.
This means for a challenge to be healthy there must be Clarity around the desired outcome, what constitutes a win. There must be Clarity around the role of each person involved in the challenge. There must be Connection to the goal and to others on the team. There must be Contribution from each team member that is their highest and best use. And every team member must be held in Consideration of their uniqueness and the value they offer to the team and the achievement of the goal. When that is achieved it is then possible to tackle healthy Challenges and meet the need for Confidence,
Finally, we must be in it together. If you, as a leader, are offering a challenge to a single team member they must know you’re rooting for them to win. If your team is meeting a challenge together, they must know you have their backs, that there is 100 percent buy in from all involved, and that the weight of the win is distributed.
Transforming our “challenging times” into healthy challenges that are fulfilling instead of overwhelming is well … a challenge. But it also has the potential to catapult the business into exponential growth.