Jerry Osteryoung: Challenge your staff

May 10, 2013 

Mountains cannot be surmounted except by winding paths.

-- Johann von Goethe

I think one of the most common mistakes managers make is not challenging their staff. Managers spend so much time with their workers that they tend to become complacent and fail to provide challenges, which are critical to helping their staff grow.

Now, I am not advocating giving a staff member an impossible task, but challenging them within reason gives them an opportunity to grow, and all of us want to feel as if we are growing and learning. Data shows this is true from an empirical point of view as well.

Three decades of study shows that people achieve a much higher performance level when they are given more challenging assignments. Workers who are given difficult jobs to do have to try different approaches in order to solve the problem. This problem solving is what leads to growth and learning.

As Connie Chung put it, "I wanted to be scared again. I wanted to feel unsure again. That's the only way I learn, the only way I feel challenged."

Of course, the real trick is finding that ideal balance between tasks that are challenging yet attainable and those that are impossible. You want to encourage people to reach higher but not set them up for failure or assign them a task that seems so difficult that they feel they will fail. The minute a task is perceived as unmanageable,

the staff member will typically give up and it will be that much more difficult to get them to stretch the next time.

I am teaching a class on starting your own business at a prison in Gadsden County, and I recently did a very unscientific study with the students. I read them a statement and asked them to write down whether they agreed or disagreed on a piece of paper.

The statement was: "I would be willing to do 30 percent more work in this class if I get 30 percent more benefits."

More than 80 percent of the class indicated they agreed with this statement. Several of the students even came up to me after the experiment to say they would be willing to work harder than that even though finding time to do the coursework in prison is tough.

The response I received in this tiny nonscientific study shows me that people really do want to be challenged more.

How the challenge is presented to staff is the critical piece. It is the manager's responsibility to make sure the assignment is fully explained, the objectives are clearly laid out and that you are there to help them if they just cannot find a way past a barrier. They must know you are there to help so they feel there is a safety net under them. However, the expectation must be that they will accomplish the task on their own.

Now go out and make sure you are challenging your staff. Both your staff and your business will be better off.

Jerry Osteryoung, the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University, can be reached at

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