Only 26% of employees experience so-called High Challenge & High Support leadership (HCHS) from their leaders, and fall into the Thriving quadrant. According to Mckinsey, 61% of employees experience only a low level of support from their leaders.

So, when we say that we want leaders who are good at both challenging and supporting, it seems we must pay even more attention to developing the leader’s supportive mindsets and capabilities.

But what does that actually entail?


We find some potential explanations for employee’s lack of “feeling supported” in the data from our own research. We asked 1.810 employees (from specialists to VPs, with a global distribution) to rate their experience of their leaders and their behaviours. The result shows that vital supportive leadership behaviours are only scarcely available.


The capability to build confidence, give constructive feedback, being empathic, inspire and build trust are exactly the leadership capabilities that make employees feel supported. When these are not abundantly available in the leader-employee interactions, the sense of belonging, psychological safety and performance will not reach its full potential. Consequently, employees and the organization underperform.

The fact that “giving autonomy” is rated rather higher, can be seen through two lenses: Through a positive lens we interpret that leaders are not micromanaging. But given the low rating of the other supportive behaviours, it may be even more realistic to interpret the higher autonomy score as a sign of leaders “abandoning” people. Employees feel even less supported.


I am always on the look-out for those special leaders who employees love to work for, and who produce excellent results. I listen carefully to what they say make their leaders so good.

One of the best descriptions I heard was this one: When I speak with my boss, I mostly come up with new and good ideas myself.“

When employees describe their best leaders, they usually start by talking about the supportive side of their leader:


Empathic. See things from the employee’s perspective, not only from the superior’s.

Connected. Very aware of the environment, and can bring a smile onto people’s face.

Team player. Being fair and caring to the entire team, and put it above her/him-self.

Empowering. Trust people to be able, instead of commanding and controlling.

Trust. People feel their boss has their back when needed.

When I probe a bit further, some of the ways the leader challenges come out:


Enabling. Enable people to perform, and will not accept upward delegation.

Accountability. Delegate ownership, and expect excellence.

Clarity. Clear on expectations and direction, and will not settle for mediocrity.

Courageous. Willing to do what is unpopular, and push boundaries.

Energetic. Hard worker, but wants to find smarter ways.

Curious. Ask questions, good listener, but will not take the first solution proposed.

Insight. High expertise and ability to anticipate problems.

Obviously, there are not many 100% perfect leaders around. Every person has flaws and bad moments, but when people feel supported by their leader, they are remarkably willing to forgive these flaws.


Based on this, we see that HCHS leaders operate around 3 roles:


They are masters in enabling people around them to feel confident and enable them to be their best selves. The transform doubt into constructive energy, and this is where the mix of support and challenge unfolds its real power.


In his long and impactful work, Peter Block formulates a view on leaders that can be helpful in redefining how we create better teams: Leaders are social architects, whose job it is to convene people so that they can cocreate the future. The leader enables people to contract with each other, and move ahead together (Paraphrased).


In depth business expertise is the foundation, but even more important is the energy with which the leader makes things happen. They connect the dots, engage people and utilize the team intelligence to do good business.


To move an organization from “Survival mode” to thriving, we need more High Challenge, High Support leaders. Leaders who positively influence, and shift people’s mindset.

But it won’t work to simply “challenge” more. “Support” is the foundation, onto which you can  build “Challenge”. If we get it the sequence wrong, we push people right into the Anxiety quadrant, and they switch to Survival Mode once again.




This article is first published here.

We have launched a Positive Leadership masterclass series, where we will go straight to the core of what make leaders impactful. We focus on practical high challenge and high support methods that you can immediately bring into your leadership practice.

For inquiries, please contact bernie@positivepsych.edu.sg.

Tara Schofield, Lecturer and Module leader at The School of Positive Psychology

Henrik Kofod-Hansen

Positive Organisation Psychology Consultant/Coach

Henrik Kofod-Hansen has more than 20 years of experience as a corporate executive and senior leader in Asia and Europe, during which he experienced the insufficiency of traditional company cultures, leadership, and development strategies. To enable better leadership and organizational thriving, he dedicated himself to utilizing the science and interventions within positive organizational psychology to enable better leadership and organizational thriving. Henrik holds an MSc of Applied Positive Psychology and advanced degrees in Organizational Psychology & Leadership, as well as in Psychotherapy and Counseling. He is an experienced and trained Co-active® coach, and an Organizational Relationship Systems Coach®.