How Do Leaders Build Resilient Teams?

The real measure of a team is not how it performs when things are going well, but how it can cope when things go wrong. So how resilient is your team?

Crises take different shapes in different organizations. And the scale on which a problem becomes a crisis is context dependent.

Sometimes it’s a global pandemic that brings most industries to a standstill (although hopefully this won’t happen again in our lifetime!). Other times it’s a serious competitor threat, a stock value crash, a PR nightmare, or a rogue handful of employees who risk sullying the company culture.

Some companies can afford to lose one $10k customer. For others, that would spell the end.

But no matter what challenge your team is facing, there’s one thing that gets them through: resilience. 

Because, just as in life, things don’t always go as planned in business. And when crisis or adversity comes knocking, how are your teams trained to respond? A resilient team will pull together, dig deep, make best use of their shared resources, and tackle the issue head on.

A resilient team is more than a group of resilient people, however. It has a unique cultural DNA and, as such, you can build a resilient team from individuals who are less resilient when on their own.

So let’s start there. What do we mean by team resilience?

What makes a resilient team?

“Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.” — American Psychological Association

And it’s the word ‘adapting’ that’s key here, especially in the world of work. 

Nothing is the very worst thing you can do when faced with stress and adversity as a business. 

Let’s revisit those potential crises we flagged earlier: when a global pandemic grips the world, when a new competitor enters the marketplace, when your stock value suddenly plummets, when you’re hit with bad publicity, or you have disruptive members in your workforce… doing nothing would surely make matters much, much worse.

Action empowers you to regain control over the challenge, and in this way it’s crucial for the business. But action also empowers employees with a renewed sense of purpose. Sudden crises can send shockwaves through a team — workers may feel paralyzed, adrift, and lacking in confidence to proceed. And by banding together with a shared goal and objectives, that clear pathway forward is restored.

This is true when you’re faced with the very worst black swan event imaginable, or a high stakes piece of client feedback on a hard-worked deliverable. It’s not the size, shape, or scale of the adversity that defines how quickly or ardently you respond. It’s your response that defines how you bounce back, and how successful your solution is.

So it’s here that we, as leaders, need to encourage this resilience to emerge. It’s our responsibility to lead by example and train our teams in what it takes to maintain resilience even when the going gets tough.

Because the alternative doesn’t look good, whichever angle you take. While there’s little research into the effects that lack of resilience has on a team, we can extrapolate on what findings we do have:

  • Resilient teams manage stress effectively
  • Resilient teams exhibit strong communication skills; actively listening to their colleagues, and responding to their emotions, too
  • And a resilient employee is often true to their ‘real self’ — behaving authentically and in line with their real values and beliefs

Would you want to lead a set of employees that’s over-stressed, not listening to each other, and hiding their true selves at work? Of course not.

So what does it take to build a resilient team?

Responding with resilience in times of crisis (and what role do leaders play?)

Chances are your team has already faced a number of challenges, both small and large, since you’ve been at the helm. So how did you fare?

If you thought things couldn’t possibly have gone better, then well done. You can probably stop reading this guide right about here! But if there was even the slightest room for improvement — or if you and your team were a bit more paralyzed, adrift, and unconfident that you’d have hoped, then we have some good news.

According to the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing:

“Although some people seem to be born with more resilience than others, those whose resilience is lower can learn how to boost their ability to cope, thrive, and flourish when the going gets tough”.

So what does that look like in your teams?

When responding to any range of complex, challenging events, a resilient team demonstrates:

Shared objectives — “We’re all in this together”

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

Desmond Tutu’s words resonate here. Why? Because the first thing required is a sense of camaraderie, when it comes to building a resilient team. 

Everything in life feels a little less daunting when it’s broken down into more manageable chunks. It’s better still to know there are other people around you — by your side and having your back.

That’s why the first step in bouncing back as a team is to set your shared objectives. How do we want to manage this situation? What do we want to achieve? How will we define success? What’s our message to other stakeholders? When do we want to have this under control by?

These are all crucial questions to ask — not just for you, as the leader, to set for yourself. By involving the team in crisis management goal setting, you give them the autonomy and authority needed to amplify their confidence. And when they feel confident, their problem-solving ability is strengthened, too.

But being “in this together” also means understanding that the team either conquers the challenge or it doesn’t. Psychological safety is central to effective collaboration. Team members will always hold back if they fear finger-pointing, blame, and retribution if things don’t go as planned. With innovation of thought often key to unlocking an issue’s solution, you simply can’t afford for your teams to always be playing it safe.

The bottom line? Set your goal as a team. Align on what actions will help you get there. Then give employees the independence and space, free from micromanagement, to achieve the solution.

Clear vision — we know what we need to achieve

Lack of alignment impacts outcome: 97% of employees agree.

This circles back to the question we raised earlier: How will we define, and measure, success? And this, for sure, will vary wildly depending on the adversity in question.

In the case of 2020’s coronavirus, there was no real solution for businesses — not in the truest sense of the word, at least. Instead, success meant navigating the changing marketplace and environment, protecting as much bottom line as possible, giving workers what they needed to keep working — or putting them on government-funded financial support, if not. 

But even when the challenge you’re facing is vast, your organization needs a single-minded response. What will you do, what can you influence, to weather the storm?

Remember to be realistic: what is relevant and achievable for your team? There’s only a select few teams in the world who can deliver a COVID-19 vaccination, but we can all do our part to keep our teams engaged while we wait.

Role clarity (or “I know what I’m doing to help”)

“Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”. Great things happen when everyone in the team connects with their individual role.

Be specific with your team members. What will they be doing to help? It might seem less important than someone else’s responsibility. It might feel far more important — and that risks spooking them out! Either way, reassure them that the team relies on everyone pulling in the same direction. 

This only works if all team members truly understand the scope of their role and relevant objectives. So don’t rush this “forming” stage in an attempt to get to the finishing line faster — you’ll live to regret it!

A shared sense of urgency

So far we’ve looked at being specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic in our goal setting. But when do we need this crisis to be under control by?

Deadlines should be handled delicately when building resilience in your employees. Ask for results in too short a timeframe, and your team will be like a deer caught in the headlights! But the opposite is true, too: without a deadline, what’s the incentive to jump to action right away?

Urgency is of specific importance when fighting fires outside of your organization. How quickly do you react if a fellow colleague has posted a discriminatory comment, or shared something dubious, on their personal social media channels? ASAP.

Trust in each other

When faced with a crisis, it’s all too tempting to think you’re the best man or woman for the job. We all do it, right? 

But resilience is a team sport. 

If a manager constantly second-guesses, undermines, or re-does an employee’s work, that individual’s resilience levels will plummet — fast. If you’ve done the previous stages justice, then you should have no reason not to trust your teams to deliver. And you should encourage the same level of trust between them, too.

Resilience requires total involvement — and that includes you

Are you the kind of manager who’ll roll up their sleeves and get stuck in? That’s incredibly motivating for employees during adverse events.

It’s one thing to be focused on the road ahead — that’s absolutely a manager’s role when fighting to regain control over spiraling events. But you also need to show willing in the day-to-day slog, if you can. Think of the Chief of Surgery who stays behind after her shift to help A&E workers cope with a road traffic accident. Or the CEO who also comes in early to get ahead of a disgruntled customer, rather than letting other people handle the fallout on their own.

Practice team resilience on the minor, everyday hiccups. And then when those once-in-a-lifetime events threaten to derail everything you’ve been working towards, your team is prepped and ready to take charge.

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