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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Mar 4, 2022


In teams we can take either a challenging or a supportive role, but they’re even better together.


Welcome to episode 127 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we are exploring how challenge and support are better together.

When working in teams, there are two main roles we can take to improve performance and build cohesion. The first is the challenging role. This is where we focus on new ideas and efficiency, while also challenging the way things are currently done. This helps the team to find new ways and implement improvements, but it can also be confronting for those who would rather leave things the way they are which, let’s face it, is most people. The second role is supportive. Here we focus on strengthening team bonds, building trust and increasing friendly interactions within the team. This helps the team to get along and work well together, but isn’t necessarily focused on performance and improvements.

People can take on either a challenging role or a supportive role. Some even manage to take on both. But who do we really want on our teams?

A recent study In the Journal of Management looked at both the challenging and supportive roles people took on, and their likelihood of being chosen for new teams. The study used MBA students who had worked on team projects together and asked them to then select who they would most like to work with in a future team. Who do you think were the most popular choices?

When people were choosing between those taking on what researchers described as a challenging voice or a supportive voice, it was the supportive people who were selected most often. As the researchers described “Having a positive reputation for good work goes a long way, but so does just being a good person. People want to work with those who they feel comfortable with.” In fact, people are willing to sacrifice performance to work with people who are trustworthy and friendly.

The most desired team members were those who combined challenging and supportive roles. They are able to focus on new ideas and improvements, while still bringing the team together towards these goals. This combination helps with unity and performance.

How do we apply this research?

If you’re new to an organisation or team, it is helpful to be open in your desire to support others and build cohesion. If you lead with the supportive role, it’s much easier to then take on a challenging role in the team.

Perhaps you’re already great at building the team and supporting others. You might want to explore how to increase the challenging role.

Or maybe you love being the devil’s advocate, constantly challenging old ways of doing things. This research suggests you will be even more effective if you also seek to support others and build team work. This will help others to listen to and accept your ideas.

So this week, try to support and challenge - they’re better together.



Daniel W. Newton, Melissa Chamberlin, Cynthia K. Maupin, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Dorothy R. Carter. Voice as a Signal of Human and Social Capital in Team Assembly DecisionsJournal of Management, 2021; 014920632110313 DOI: 10.1177/01492063211031303