One network that often goes overlooked is our challenge network, a term coined by Adam Grant. Basically, while we all like people who give us praise and support, if we want to improve, we need someone to push back, someone to disagree with us. (There’s no “Try harder” button on Facebook). This seems intuitive. If you shoot foul shots at 50% and your coach says “Keep up the good work!” you may feel satisfied, but you may never improve. If you want to increase that percentage, you need critical feedback, like “Let’s break down your form and work on the follow-through.” This is initially harder to hear, but will help you in the long run. The coach challenged you.
Chances are you have a few of these people in your life already. The teacher who gives a full-page of red-inked comments, the personal trainer who makes you do a burnout, the friend who helps you kick a detrimental habit, your AA sponsor. A challenger is not exactly a motivator (e.g., “You can do anything you set your mind to!”), or a contrarian (“I wouldn’t do it that way.”), or a devil’s advocate (e.g., “Sure…but”), or even a mentor (“Here is what I would do.”). The challenger moves from vague platitudes to specific advice with the singular goal of making you better at something. Anyone who says “You may not like me now but you will thank me later” is challenging you. Grant outlines why we should create a challenge network in Think Again. I’m interested in how to do it.
The first step is to identify candidates:
By now you probably thought of a few people who fit those criteria. How do you make them a part of your challenge network? This is where it gets tricky. Most people are conflict averse, meaning we avoid confrontation. Remember the whole point of this person is to challenge/confront you, essentially inviting conflict where it doesn’t need to be. We are also loss averse, meaning we’d rather not lose a friend than gain one. Asking someone to be brutally honest with you runs the risk of damaging—or even losing—that personal relationship. So to create a challenge network you have to overcome both conflict and loss aversion, which amounts to a risky proposition.
But it may not be as risky as we think. In general, individuals believe that others will respond negatively when asked sensitive questions. We think it will come off as too personal, offensive, abrasive, or inappropriate. Compare questions like “How about this weather?” and “Did you catch that game last night?” with “Are you close with your parents?” or “What is something you struggle with?” While asking about the weather may not move the needle on a friendship, it runs no risk of damaging it either. However, research by Maurice Schweitzer shows that people are generally more open to these types of questions than we think. Further, there is a real opportunity cost of not asking sensitive questions because you never deepen that relationship, leaving relational capital on the table. Schweitzer’s takeaway is that the chances are slim that we will ruin a friendship by asking a sensitive question, and the benefits outweigh the risk of moving out of our conversational comfort zones.
Applied to building a challenge network, you essentially have to reverse the order of the sensitivity. You are not asking for sensitive information about the person, rather, you are asking for critical feedback, which is sensitive information about yourself. Instead of asking “What do you struggle with?” you are saying “Please tell me what I struggle with.” This places pressure on the challenger, which is why we don’t like to do it. As a teacher, after a colleague observes my class, I may ask, “What did you think?” to which the auto-reply is “Great job!” Not much is gained in that interaction. But If I were to ask, “How do you think I could improve student engagement?” I might receive feedback that makes me a better teacher. However, immediately you can see the potential for conflict. Hearing something like, “You talk to fast,” “You don’t ask enough questions,” or “You use too much jargon,” may be simultaneously true and offensive, which is why we often default to the low-hanging fruit questions. But the opportunity cost here is self-improvement, and so it is in our best interest to overcome this obstacle.
So how do you create this network? Consider the person you identified and follow these 8 steps:
Networks are essential to the human experience, but we tend to shy away from those that challenge us. Critical feedback is a necessary ingredient for personal growth, and the benefits of building a challenge network outweigh the potential risks. Find someone who will challenge you to be your best self.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.