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Group Dynamics

Growth = Challenge + Support

James Neill
Last updated:
04 Jun 2004

Quick Guide

Growth = Challenge + Support

Life and even non-life forms demonstrate remarkably simple principles.

In order for a life-like pattern to flourish, it requires:

  • challenge

  • support

Challenge sets a process in motion - it provides the motivation or energy for a response.  Support helps to ensure successful adaptation.

The challenge for a newly sprouted seed it to survive and thrive until its produced seed.  It needs support in the form of light and nutrients.  The challenge and the support allow it to succeed.  Without the challenge (the motivation) or support (the help), the plant would wither.

In humans, support alone creates laziness.  Challenge alone can be harmful.  Together, challenge and support can create a myriad of adventurous growth experiences.

Forms of human support can be depicted using Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  As one's more basic needs are met, one's higher needs can be pursued.  Thus, genuine support should be matched with people's real needs.

Research Evidence about the Role of Challenge + Support

In a study of 41 adult Outward Bound participants, it was found that the amount of social support strongly predicted changes in participants’ ‘psychological resilience’ (Neill & Dias, 2001). 

Resilience refers to an individuals’ capacity to survive and thrive in difficult circumstances.  In this study, there were four measures of social support

  • overall group support

  • instructor support

  • support from the most supportive group member, and

  • support from the least supportive group member. 

Interestingly, it was the support received from the least supportive person that best predicted gains in resilience. 

This seems to mean that disruptive, negative individuals may be seriously limiting the potential for other group members’ learning and development. 

These research findings support the need for a humanistic approach and suggest the need for leaders to deal proactively with negative group members who may retard the potential growth of other group members. 

Early intervention, involving feedback and support to individuals providing low or negative support, as well as to those individuals who are perceiving that they are receiving low support, is recommended.


Social Support Helps People Grow

For growth groups, a major source of human support is social support, since the more basic needs are often readily satisfied.

In psychological theory and research, it has been known for many years that social support is a key factor which determines people’s level of physical and mental health. 

For example, in group and workplace settings  socially supportive teams are more likely to reach their objectives.

At the heart of this approach is the importance of deep valuing and active support of each individual. 

People who feel good about themselves generally are more productive and effective than those who don't feel good about themselves.

This is consistent with a person-centered approach to therapy: “As persons are accepted and prized, they tend to develop a more caring attitude towards themselves” (Rogers, 1980: 116).

The person-centered or humanistic approach is based around respect for the dignity and individuality of each member.  This belief in each person's value is a critical ingredient for growth and development.  Effective psychological change processes usually benefit from a humanistic orientation.

Support alone, however, is not enough.  For example, there has recently been criticism of parenting and schooling practices which artificially inflate children's self-esteem without giving the children real skills upon which to base their self-esteem. 

Ideally, support should be paired with appropriately challenging experiences.  The mix of social support and challenge can be a powerful formula for healing and growth.

This may explain, for example, the impressive effects of  outdoor education programs.  Programs such as Outward Bound provide controlled exposure to challenging experiences and emphasize a warm and supportive group atmosphere.

Social support helps people to take positive risks.  However, when there are negative relations with others, people are inclined to adopt defensive or aggressive postures are at not able to create and engage in as many growth opportunities.

Social support can also serve as a salve to pains encountered along the way.  It gives people confidence in 'having a go' and testing their limits when they know they have a community of support they can fall back on.

Social support is freely available.  Create social support with a smile, a compliment, a helping hand and you start to create your own environment of support in return.  Love does make the world go around -- but  only if we keep passing it around.

Leaders can create social support by demonstrating a caring attitude towards each individual.  In addition, the leader fosters social support amongst the group by providing sequential activities such as:

  • Name games, get-to-know-you activities, and trust experiences

  • Personal and interpersonal exploration activities, such as sharing life stories, diaries, etc.

  • Interpersonal feedback and life review and life planning activities

  • (see Index to Group Activities, Games, Exercises & Initiatives)

When the power of social support and challenge are really harnessed, a group can collectively achieve very significant, even transformational growth together.

There are a multitude of ways for enhancing the social support in group programs.  Here’s a list of ways to promote social support in groups.