Do You Have What It Takes to Grow?

by May 11, 2023Success

 “For growth to occur, a person needs a balanced amount of challenge and support as appropriate for the task” declared Dr. Nevitt Sanford in 1966, a professor of psychology at U.C Berkeley, when he designed his challenge and support concept.

This theory led to the support and challenge matrix, proposed in 2012 by John Blakey and Ian Day in their book “Challenging Coaching.”

The core principle is that for people to thrive, they need a healthy balance between enough support and enough challenge*.

The matrix displays 4 quadrants that represent 4 cultures, 4 environments, 4 philosophies that apply to teaching, coaching, leadership and learning.


Quadrant 1: The Abdicator

A low-support and low-challenge environment is the worst possible scenario. It creates a situation where little to no learning can take place. This leads to a culture of indifference and low expectations.

People are disengaged, apathetic and stagnant. They have low morale, boredom and a complete lack of progress.

In a veterinary setting, this is the mark of a practice when the leader coasts and is content with the status quo. Employees have no motivation – besides getting a paycheck. They practice the same way they did last year – or 10 years ago.



Quadrant 2: The Dominator

A low-support and high-challenge culture is not conducive to growth either.

It creates an environment where people are constantly pushed to their limits without the support they need.

This leads to a culture of fear, confrontation and manipulation. People become dependent. They feel criticized and experience unproductive stress.

In a vet practice, this can be observed when the leader keeps pushing the team to perform at all costs. There is no limit to the amount of work. Yet employees are not provided with the support they need in the form of staffing, resources, breaks, equipment or coaching. This is a recipe for stress, burnout and high turnover.



Quadrant 3: The Protector

A high-support and low-challenge situation is not ideal for learning either.

It creates an environment where employees (or students) don’t need to stretch their skills. They learn by repetition, not by improvement. So they can perform their job well, but they stagnate.

This leads to a culture of entitlement and mistrust. People take it easy. They are cozy in their little comfort zone. They are safe and relaxed, but bored.

In a veterinary situation, the Protector can be a head nurse who is both super talented and overprotecting. If one of her underlings struggles, instead of coaching them, she flies to the rescue and places the IV catheter, retakes the X-ray, or intubates the patient – correctly.

This leads to a team of codependent, overprotected, nurtured group-thinkers.



Quadrant 4: The Liberator

A high-support and high-challenge environment is ideal for teaching and learning.

It creates a situation of continuous exploration, innovation and achievement.

This leads to a culture of growth, empowerment, opportunity, interdependence and cooperation.

People find meaning and purpose. They are allowed to try new things. Their well-being is a core principle, not an afterthought or a luxury.

Liberators create amazing practices where teammates are equally supported and challenged. Their philosophy is “better every day.” Their culture is one of learning, personal growth and professional development.


It’s a fine balance. Provide too much support, and you can become a protector. Challenge too much, and you can be seen as a dominator. Provide neither, and that makes you an abdicator!

The ideal learning environment for becoming a Liberator is one that provides both high levels of support and challenge. 

This leads to happy, well-balanced and fulfilled team members.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified

* Thank you very much to Megan M. for the teaching moment and the inspiration.