Resilience is a team sport

Take the group seriously, write Kathleen King, John Higgins and Howell Schroeder

We are all familiar with the importance of resilience as an individual attribute. Based on our qualitative research across three organizations over 18 months, we found that team resilience exists and matters even more. If good teams outperform the best individual, then resilient teams outlast the strongest individual.

Resilient teams have the ability to complete the team’s tasks successfully, however pressurized the circumstances. The dynamic at play is more complex than resilient individuals working together (F Dalal, 1998, Taking the Group Seriously, Jessica Kingsley Publishers). The metaphor of migrating birds seems apt, because different team members carry different levels of the burden at any one time, with everyone heading in the same direction. The nature of resilience varies between teams; it is inherently contextual, but we did find some common themes.

What do leaders attend to?

Leaders pay close attention to four things. They worry about relationships, nurturing positive connections; and they work to improve those that are stuck, hostile or combative. One important aspect is their careful attention to hiring new team members to ensure a good fit, not just looking at the skills they bring, but also checking for good chemistry with the existing team members.

They manage workload, so that no-one is consistently overburdened, cutting members slack when they need it, while making sure that work is stimulating and engaging.

Leaders accept mistakes. They are prepared to acknowledge their own while avoiding apportioning blame. They genuinely see mistakes first and foremost as opportunities to learn. Fourth, they make sure that the team is aware of how it contributes to the purpose of the organization. They bring attention back to the bigger, collective picture. However, leadership is only part of the story.

What do individuals attend to?

Overall, individual team members bring a spirit of ‘delusional optimism’ (see Daniel Kahneman 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus Giroux) and energy to work: they either don’t know the odds against them or refuse to believe them. At the same time, they balance this with being realistic and without succumbing to utopian solutions (Watzlawick & Weakland et al, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution).

Too much lack of realism can get in the way of sound understanding and meaningful action. Thus setbacks are experienced as opportunities to grow and learn, not as personal defeats.

Healthy relationships with other team members are not instrumental, but seen as valuable in their own right. People are allowed to be themselves – we all have lives outside work – while being professional. In this sense, team members are generous to each other, with lots of give and take.

Asking for help is not seen as a weakness, and help is both sought and offered, without guilt or resentment. And a little bit of friendly rivalry stimulates higher team performance, while a sense of humour helps keep things
in perspective.

What does the team attend to?

Apart from the classic advice to have shared norms and rituals to reinforce trust and the sense of being a valued group, there is a strong feeling of all being in this – whatever this is – together.

Does anyone remember Tom Peters’ advice to hire nice, because you can’t train nice? Resilient teams share the value of kindness. Being kind makes you approachable, easier to deal with and fosters mutual goodwill. More than this, the team does three specific things. First, they value and make time for reflection, on team dynamics as well as on the task, however hard the pressure; going slow to go fast.

Second, they understand the difference between adaptive and technical challenges in change (R Heifetz, A Grashow & M Linsky, 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Business Press). Much teamwork is technical and requires expertise. Adaptive situations, on the other hand, have no obvious expert solution. Resilient teams avoid the temptation of applying a technical quick fix to adaptive challenges, which always fail in the long run. Resilient teams are sceptical about quick fixes and are prepared to engage in debate and cope with the anxiety and frustration that adaptive solutions can engender.

And third, resilient teams are curious about new ideas wherever they are found. They are prone to explore, rather than reject new approaches, even if they challenge tried and tested team methods.

The resilient team story

Everyone matters in a resilient team and the story they tell the world and each other runs something like this: “We have a collective purpose that matters to us and which we can only achieve together. We’ve had our share of setbacks and they have made us stronger, because we learnt from them. We succeed because we abide by and hold each other to the shared norms of helping each other out, coming up with creative solutions and being straight with clients/patients/bosses/each other. Each and every one of us has a contribution to make. We all have value and we all add value.”

How does your team stack up against this story?

— Kathleen King is an organizational consultant, researcher and coach. She is an adjunct of Ashridge-Hult Business School

— John Higgins is a coach, author and research associate of Ashridge

— Howell Schroeder is a consultant and formerly Ashridge’s strategy and leadership programme director