How Much Should You Challenge Your Employees?

We all face challenges every day in every organization and in every position at every level. No one is immune. While we often lament the difficulties they bring and the accompanying stress, these problems can be crucial to keeping employees engaged. Without problems to solve, work becomes monotonous and boring. Employees without challenging work are more likely to disengage from their job and seek employment elsewhere, leaving you searching for a replacement through a recruiting firm.

As an employer, it is best to keep pushing employees then, right? Not necessarily. Challenging work motivates employees when they feel they can rise to the occasion. If they lack the skills or resources to succeed or feel unsupported by their management, a challenge can seem insurmountable. Instead of engaging, employees in this position are likely to feel overwhelmed and incapable.

Using challenges to bring out the best in your employees requires maintaining a balance between what you are asking, what you are providing, and what that employee can accomplish. When properly framed, your challenges can be the best retention tool.

The Framework

Employees presented with new tasks or challenging problems to overcome can react in various ways. Feeling out of their element, some may feel inadequate or even paralyzed by the fear of falling short. Others may dig in their heels and face the challenge head-on. Both employees may be capable. You can help shape their reaction and ability to be successful through how you present the opportunity.

1. Be an Example

Whether you know it or not, your employees are constantly aware of your behavior, attitudes, and actions. They watch how you respond to demanding customers, missed deadlines, and problems that arise in key projects. Do you get frustrated easily? Do you throw in the towel and avoid the problem? Do you blame the problem on someone else?

Training employees to step up to the plate when faced with a problem requires you to model the correct behavior. Let them see your calm response under pressure and determination to understand the problem. Involve them in solving the problem and ask them for their suggestions. Your optimism and trust in the team will highlight the resources and processes at their disposal to support them in their efforts.

2. Show Them How

Stepping up into a new role or responsibility may not come naturally. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Remember, they do not have the knowledge and experience you have gained over the years. While employees often learn the most when they struggle through it independently, assigning tasks without proper guidance can cause frustration and disengagement.

Instead of leaving employees to discover what you already know, use this as a teaching opportunity. Share helpful advice about how to be successful in their new role and make yourself available to answer questions as they arise. Don’t wait until the next meeting to address concerns that could be resolved now. Unanswered questions often stand in the way of progress.

3. Make it Uncomfortable

We all want to feel comfortable at work, which is why we enjoy working for companies that offer a compatible company culture or share similar values. However, employees that are too comfortable in their roles may become bored. Eventually, they will crave something different.

When you ask employees to perform new tasks, it pushes them out of their comfort zone. It can be very uncomfortable for some. However, it also introduces variety into their work life. It may require them to learn new skills or expand their knowledge. Exposure to new ideas, processes, and problems challenges employees to think in new ways and increases creativity and innovation.

Discomfort can lead to more engaged employees who can respond to unique problems with innovative solutions.

4. Prepare for Mistakes

No matter how hard someone tries or how skilled they are, they will make mistakes. “It’s just like riding a bike.” Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we all fall down and scrape our knees. But, we learn from our mistakes. The more you practice, the better you become. Soon, something that once was hard becomes easier or even automatic.

Be patient with employees while they strive to learn new skills. Avoid being too critical of their missteps. Try to frame their shortcomings as opportunities to learn and improve. This positive attitude towards failures can help motivate employees to keep pushing forward instead of giving up.

5. Plan Ahead

Employees who consistently rise to the occasion and master new skills and abilities can be great contributors to your organization. As they learn and grow, make space for them to advance and use their newly acquired skills. Sometimes, this can mean opening a new position or offering a promotion to allow them room to grow.

Consider meeting regularly with employees to learn about their career goals. Where would they really like to be, and what would they like to be doing? Look for ways to support their ambitions, such as offering training or leadership opportunities. Employees pursuing their dreams are likely to accept and overcome the challenges that stand in their way.

6. Recognize Accomplishments

Continually challenging your employees to do more and be better can yield excellent results for your business. However, the process can feel grueling to employees. They need to know you are aware of their challenges and the hard work they put in to make the company successful.

Take the time to recognize employee accomplishments. Employees need to hear that their efforts are appreciated more than once a year during their performance review. Implementing an awards program, paying bonuses, or offering extra time off can mean a lot to hardworking employees.

A job without challenges will never be interesting enough to satisfy the average employee. It is the challenges that make life interesting and drive us to learn more and be better at what we do. Presenting your employees with the right challenges and the proper support can be a great way to grow your team and your business at the same time.


How Much Should You Challenge Your Employees?