Most managers and people leaders set out with the best intentions, and genuinely want to support their people as well as they can. However, we don’t always get it right, and our potential biases towards the type of support we personally prefer, or which types of support we are more comfortable giving, can colour how we support others, whether or not these styles are the best fit for them.

First, it is important to recognise that there are many ways we can offer support to someone. In fact, researchers describe four categories of support:

Emotional support:Emotional support involves being there for the person’s emotional needs, such as recognising and validating that they are struggling or feeling stressed. This support may simply be listening to them talk about what’s going on and offering some empathy, as well as letting them know that their work and contributions are seen and valued.

Instrumental support: Instrumental support involves offering tangible resources to overcome the difficulties the person is facing. In the workplace, instrumental support could include allocating help from a colleague to assist an employee in meeting a deadline, shifting timelines so that more time is available, or taking over a task or a project for them.

Informational support:Informational support involves giving the person additional information, training, or advice to help them solve the problem. In a work context, this could be upskilling the employee in a certain area, offering training, connecting them with a colleague with specific expertise, or simply giving them contact details for technical support.

Appraisal support:Appraisal support involves giving the individual information that will help them to evaluate their performance, ideally recognising what they do well. At work, this could be confirming that the individual made a good call or is doing well, offering specific feedback, or giving recognition.

Each of these four types of support is important, and we will all need each type of support at times. Problems can arise when there is a mismatch between the type of support needed and that offered. Do any of these experiences sound familiar?

  • You really wanted to vent and have someone listen, but the person you spoke to rushed to telling you what you should do to solve this situation.
  • You really needed some help to complete a project in time, but instead were told you were doing a great job and to keep going.
  • You approached someone senior for help with something you weren’t confident with, hoping for some input and advice, and instead they said, “OK, I’ll do the rest”.

While in each of these situations the person offering support likely had good intentions, the disconnection between your needs and their support may have resulted in you feeling more stressed and not well supported.

So how do we provide the right support?

  • Knowing your people well, and being willing to ask how best you can support them are really important. Think about your team – how are they different to one another? When each team member needs support, what do they tend to say? What type of support do you typically give them? Does it tend to be one kind of support, or is it a mix of the four types? Do you support them differently to how you support other team members, and if so how?
  • Follow up these thoughts by asking. Next time you have a one-to-one, ask questions like, “How well supported do you feel in your role? Is there anything I could do to better support you?” You could offer your observations on how you support them. For example, “I’ve noticed that I tend to give you a lot of practical help with resources and information, but not much feedback about how you’re doing. Is that something you think you’d benefit from more of?”
  • When a specific situation for support arises, a question like, “So you’re saying that you’re really struggling with X. If I were to do one thing to best support you with this situation, what would that be?” This type of question can be enough to clarify what kind of support they are actually seeking, and to give you feedback as to whether what they want matches what you would have offered if you hadn’t asked.

It’s also important to know your own natural tendencies when it comes to giving support, as they will influence you.

  • Reflecting on the four types of support above, what support are you most comfortable giving? Do you tend towards some types more readily than others?
  • If you neglect any of those four categories of support, try to deliberately offer that support. For example, if you tend not to offer emotional support, let your team know that they can come to you to talk through an issue should they need to.
  • If you tend not to do much informational support, in your next one-on-ones with your people, ask each of them, “Is there anything you don’t know or fully understand that would help you to do your job? Is there any further training or knowledge you need to feel able to achieve what you’d like to in this role?”

If nothing else, having more conversations about what people need and how you can best support them will help you to understand your people, and encourage them to have similar conversations with each other, facilitating a team culture of support. You cannot possibly meet all your people’s support needs, so encouraging a culture of mutual support, and checking in with your people about whether they are feeling well enough supported from all of their support networks (management, colleagues, family, friends) are essential to helping your people to thrive.

Written by Allanah