The Feedback Support/Challenge Matrix

DG-accoutability_pt4True accountability cannot exist without feedback and acknowledgement —areas in which most organizations have weaknesses.

But here’s the dilemma: If your feedback is strictly positive, there’s no way for you to provide constructive input. On the other end of the feedback continuum, overly critical feedback will discourage employees’ efforts. Leaders need to strike the right balance.

Here’s a more helpful way to view the feedback continuum:


When you deliver feedback, you can offer high or low levels of support and challenge, with relatively predictable results.

If you, for example, provide supportive, yet unchallenging, feedback, your employee has no reason to change. Without any challenges, the employee may become complacent, bored or disengaged.

Conversely, if you give employees a challenge, but provide low support, they will probably perceive a stressful command-and-control environment. Why should they give their best without supervisory support or positive reinforcement?

High-Support/ High-Challenge Feedback

In the work I do coaching executives, I find that most feedback falls into two quadrants of the matrix:

  1. There’s too much support, being too nice, extending too much grace without enough challenge (enforcing the status quo).
  2. Overly critical feedback creates too much stress (low support/high challenge).

The most effective managers, leaders and coaches provide high-support/high-challenge feedback, which increases employee awareness while pushing for enhanced performance.

“Feedback should have ‘bite,’ create insight, deliver a new perspective and cause a step change,” write Challenging Coaching authors Blakey and Day. When feedback is highly supportive and challenging, employees experience recognition and are encouraged to improve.

You can say, for example: “Your recent report was stellar. You covered all the basics and backed them up with research. And , here’s an idea to consider: How can this report be better? I’d like to see you come up with one or two ways to make it airtight. How would you do that?”

The high-support/high-challenge quadrant is contingent upon a secure relationship. The higher the trust level, the greater the potential impact of challenging feedback.

Successful feedback interventions require several key elements:

  • There is a high Trust relationship & culture
  • They are honest, yet nonjudgmental.
  • They risk taking the conversation into uncharted areas of discussion.
  • They challenge without being confrontational.
  • They often arise intuitively, inspiring creative input from both parties.
  • They are risky, yet motivated by genuine curiosity and a desire to evoke stretch goals.

There is obviously a lot of room for improvisation. Skilled managers take the time to deliver feedback that inspires great work. Unfortunately, many managers soften the message in an effort to preserve rapport and trust.

How does this happen in your organization? Are feedback sessions and performance reviews supportive but not challenging enough? Or vice versa? Are the expectations of you clear stated? I work with leaders and teams on building/creating Cultures of Trust and Accountability. I’d love to hear from you, leave me a comment.


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