Don’t Steal The Struggle

It’s a scene common to every parent. A child sits on the floor attempting to tie their shoes for the first time. Initially, there’s a sense of innocence and curiosity as the child examines the tangled laces, fingers fumbling over the loops and knots. It’s almost as if you can see the wheels turning in their minds as they try to make sense of the task at hand, their face a canvas of concentration.

Eventually frustration mounts as the laces slip from their grasp or stubbornly refuse to cooperate, leading to exasperated sighs and perhaps even a few tears of frustration. With my own kids, this is where I would typically step in. My lack of patience and routinely overbooked schedule led me to intervene and tie the shoes simply to move things along.

This time, however, my wife was having none of it. She pulled me back and whispered, “Don’t steal his struggle.”

She didn’t realize how hard her maxim hit. Looking back, I am thankful for the leaders who refused to steal my struggle.

Struggle is an essential ingredient of development. Specifically, it’s housed in the “experience” portion of our Leader Development Model (see below). When we prevent others from struggling, we inadvertently undermine their autonomy and agency. We send the message that we don’t believe in their ability to overcome challenges or navigate difficulties on their own. More importantly, we rob them of an experience necessary for professional growth.

When considering experiences, it helps to frame them using two distinct considerations. First, is the experience planned or unplanned? Second, is the experience personal or professional?

Planned Developmental Experience

Personal: This could involve intentionally setting aside time and resources to pursue personal growth, such as enrolling in a cooking class, learning a new language, or traveling to a foreign country to broaden one’s cultural perspective.Professional: In a professional context, planned developmental experiences might include attending workshops, seminars, or conferences related to one’s field, participating in leadership training programs, or pursuing advanced education like a master’s degree or a professional certification.

Unplanned Developmental Experience

Personal: These experiences often arise unexpectedly from life events or circumstances. For example, facing a personal crisis could lead to significant personal growth and self-discovery. Traveling to a new place and encountering unforeseen challenges can also spur personal development.Professional: In a professional setting, an unplanned developmental experience might involve a sudden assignment as project lead, taking on new responsibilities due to organizational changes, or navigating through a challenging work situation that requires rapid skill development and adaptation.

With regard to professional experiences, most of us don’t raise our hand and ask for the challenges that will stretch us or push us to the brink of failure. As a leader, however, we are obligated to create challenges that will develop our teammates. In that spirit, here are four tips to cultivate growth through the power of experience:

Award experiences unique to the individual. Not all experiences are the same. Neither are people. Just as you give different gifts to individuals based on age, interests, and tastes, key developmental experiences should be carefully packaged and presented.Assign experiences one level beyond the current position. By design, developmental experiences place an individual outside his comfort zone. Moreover, this allows you to reveal one’s potential. Remember…it should stretch, refine, and grow the person. This also facilitates our next tip.Allow team members to fail — internally. Failure can be a powerful lesson. If the experience is beyond one’s current position, however, no one expects them to have it mastered. Therefore, it’s more permissible to fail. One caveat — never allow a failure to reflect negatively on the individual or the organization.Appraise the experience through intentional reflection and deliberate feedback. Don’t underestimate the value of one conversation. Remember — as John Maxwell said, “Experience isn’t the best teacher, evaluated experience is.” Take time to review one’s actions, draw lessons learned, and encourage them to keep moving forward. Struggle naturally causes even the best of us to pull back.

So, the next time you see the struggle — be it your child, your teammate, or your direct report — don’t steal it! It may turn out to be one of their most valuable possessions.

Don’t Steal The Struggle was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.