I often get asked what the best way is to make team members more resilient. There is no simple answer to this, but there is a key to better equipping individuals to handle pressure and deal with adversity, one that can be explained with the help of some basic physics.
If you apply enough force, you can in theory stretch an object to eternity. But if you take it beyond its ‘elastic limit’ then it’s never going to recover its original shape. Its resilience is lost. When the force applied is too strong, an object becomes deformed. And when those objects are people, we call it fatigue or burnout. Resilience only happens if tension is relieved before it goes too far.
For me, what this tells us is that the solution to nurturing resilience lies in what organisations can do to manage people’s experience of stress, rather than trying to make them more resilient.
Here are a few practical ideas to help build team resilience, that if done well, will make a big difference.
- Look at the scale of your teams.
Humans and their antecedents have existed for six million years, during which time they’ve lived in family sized groups. By ‘group’ I’m talking about something bigger than most modern households, but smaller than a family celebration; say ten or twelve people. This scale is large enough to allow diversity of skillsets and opportunities to learn from colleagues, but small enough to create social bonds so co-workers are supportive to, and feel valued by, colleagues. Big teams can make people feel like a proverbial cog in a wheel, and small teams may lack a group identity. Can your larger teams be subdivided, or smaller teams aggregated, in order to foster a scale where team members are mutually supportive? This would be a very good first step towards creating a resilient organisation.
- Train people to work together.
Resilience is a collective phenomenon as much as it is an individual characteristic. Individual people will grow in personal resilience if they are working in a resilient team, which is one that believes it can effectively complete tasks together. This means that each individual must not only have confidence in their own abilities and skills, but also in the skills and abilities of those around them, especially if those skillsets are different to their own. Understanding that the team can collectively complete tasks that are beyond the scope of individuals is a key characteristic of resilient teams. Sports and business are full of examples of teams who recover from adversity to win, sometimes against huge odds. A common theme in such situations is that teams were confident in their collective ability; not over-confident which leads to complacency, and not under-confident which leads to lack of ambition. Training your teams to understand their own and their colleagues’ work-style preferences is another building block for effective and resilient teams. If team members are on the same page about their own and colleagues’ responsibilities and skills, then decision making and coordination are significantly enhanced, even under adversity.
- Make sure everyone knows the mission.
If we believe in the reason we do something, most of us find a stronger sense of purpose and fulfilment and are willing to go the extra mile and embrace necessary change. Think about the effort and sacrifice made in the COVID crisis by healthcare professionals and other key workers. When I talk with people in these occupations, I’m struck that their resilience was tested not so much by long hours, scant resources or even lack of finances; what frustrates them most is interference from people in authority and others who simply don’t understand their mission. Your organisation may not be in the business of educating young minds or saving lives, but there is a laudable reason why you do what you do, in the way that you do it. Make sure you share this sense of purpose with everyone in your organisation, so they know the overall mission and the part they play. Then ensure they know how much you personally value that part.
- Encourage risk taking and improvisation.
If current procedures and processes hit capacity, telling staff to do more for longer, won’t work. If you can’t hire or add other capacity, you must empower managers and teams to improvise and find new ways to handle situations. Most managers believe improvisation is random and therefore to be avoided; but improvisation is a deliberate process to adjust how situations are managed in real time. As long as teams reference past experience so novel ideas are based on more than guesswork, experimentation is essential for your business to evolve and survive. A manager’s role is to support novel ideas, whilst running robust post-implementation reviews to ensure that quality of outcome is not sacrificed.
- Help people feel able to contribute.
Here’s the big one. You can only foster true resilience when team members share a belief that it’s permissible to take interpersonal risks; people won’t offer unusual solutions or ideas if they fear criticism. This aspect of teamwork is so crucial it has acquired the term psychological safety. Management studies show that team members typically only discuss established ideas because they fear rejection from their peers or managers. In contrast, when teams respect one another’s ideas and trust, they speak up and express innovative ideas. As a leader, you must foster this culture so that it percolates down and becomes the norm. Start by asking more questions; many senior leaders believe their function is to know all the answers. This reduces diversity of input, places unreasonable expectations on you and disempowers others. With every question you ask, you set a valuable example and show you welcome input.
There has never been a time when greater diversity of perspective and increased resilience are so badly needed. Luckily, they go hand-in-hand. Cultivate diversity of thought, and you will grow resilience.
I hope I have managed to convince you that resilient teams are the key to developing resilient individuals and that the responsibility to foster team and organisational resilience sits with senior leadership. The key is to look at the size, structure and culture of your teams.