3 essentials you need to focus on if you want a resilient team

If you lead a team then I would hazard a guess that you and your team have weathered an emergency, crisis or surprise… or two. When facing a tough situation, it’s important not only to keep going during it but also to come out the other side relatively unscathed and still performing.

Team resilience can be defined as the ability to maintain performance during a crisis, to bounce back after adversity and, through learning from the adversity, to bounce forward and increase the team’s capacity for handling future shocks and surprises.

One study suggests there are three different types of resilience that can help organisations respond effectively:

  • Cognitive resilience – the ability to recognise adversity and respond appropriately.
  • Behavioural resilience – understanding the workings of the organisation and utilising accordingly.
  • Contextual resilience – understanding the overall framework in which the resilient organisation must operate. For example, local government operates in a wider framework involving others, such as Central Government.

Why is resilience so important?

In a hyper-connected, always on, turbulent world, there are very few organisations and teams that won’t encounter some kind of emergency or crisis at some point. Being able to navigate through and out the other side of the crisis and maintaining good performance and a good reputation is crucial.

Building a resilient team starts way before an emergency or crisis. Here are 3 key things that you should focus on:

Your leadership style

In one study of medical emergency teams, the researchers found that a directive leadership style was more successful in enabling a team with less experienced team members to handle more complex situations. However, an empowering leadership style seemed to be more effective in less complex situations with more experienced team members.

A directive leadership style is one where the leader sets clearly defined objectives and rules for team members to adhere to. The emphasis is on clear instruction, performance measures and timelines. Decisions tend to be made solely by the leader, rather than in collaboration with the team.

An empowering leadership style is one where trust is placed in the team members. The leader either makes decisions in partnership with team members, or hands over decision-making authority for certain decisions to the team.

Gudela Grote, in Chapter 8 of Exploring Resilience: A scientific journey from practice to theory, suggests that leaders need three fundamental things to help their team be resilient:

  1. The ability to adapt and be flexible.
  2. Putting in place systems and processes that enable the team, and the individuals within it, to adapt and respond effectively.
  3. A focus on creating a psychologically safe culture.

A coaching style can help

Effective knowledge sharing is linked with positive organisational performance and increased levels of creativity and innovation.  There are many studies which suggest leadership and management behaviour can play a big part in whether people readily share knowledge with each other. For example, in a 10-working day diary study, researchers found that people whose managers used a coaching style were more likely to feel gratitude which, in turn, seemed to facilitate greater levels of knowledge sharing. Those employees who believed they were not overqualified (knowledge, skills, and expertise) appeared to value managerial coaching more and see it as a positive.

The three fundamental dimensions of managerial coaching are:

1) GUIDANCE – clarifying performance expectations and providing constructive feedback

2) FACILITATION – providing advice and help to address difficulties

3) INSPIRATION – inspiring employees to learn and realise their potential

The board’s resilience

Then there is the leadership team of a whole organisation. A 2013 study published in Safety Science, suggests that the most resilient top teams display the following behaviours:

  1. They use and rely on extensive information to make the best decision possible.
  2. They focus on collaboration over competition with each other.
  3. They spend time forging high-quality connections between each other. The better the quality the relationships, the more openness and honesty, and openness to learning there is.

In summary, the researchers suggest that the combination of the use of information, the honest conversations, and openness to learning, means a top team is more able to assess and respond to critical issues quickly and effectively.

Psychological safety

As a reminder, Amy Edmondson, in her original 1996 study, states that psychological safety is:

“A shared belief amongst individuals as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking in the workplace.”

When we feel psychologically safe, we:

  • Speak up when we disagree with a course of action.
  • Give constructive feedback to others, including those more senior.
  • Put forward an unusual idea.
  • Learn from failure.

In his excellent book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R Clark states that the first stage is inclusion. Psychological safety starts with feeling like we belong, and that we are accepted for who we are. We won’t feel safe to challenge the status quo if we don’t feel accepted or that we belong.

When we feel psychologically safe, we’re more likely to experience positive emotions. This provides a solid foundation to put forward ideas. Broaden-and-Build Theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson, suggests that when people experience positive emotions, it enables them to put their thoughts into action. When people experience positive emotions, they tend to develop the resources that enable them to cope and be resilient.

Learning from failure

A psychologically safe culture that nurtures learning opportunities, including learning from failure, is more likely to develop the capabilities needed for team resilience. A study in Applied Psychology goes on to suggest that such a culture also improves general levels of wellbeing, engagement, and teamwork, as well as enabling the team to focus on what they need to do during a crisis. Gibbs Reflective Cycle is a really helpful framework for learning from failure. The image below illustrates the Cycle, and you can download your own copy of this sketchnote to use by clicking HERE

How to create a psychologically safe team environment

In a 2017 systematic review of research into psychological safety, Alex Newman and colleagues identified four factors that help create a psychologically safe culture:

  1. Supportive leadership behaviours such as coaching, inclusiveness, trustworthiness, integrity and openness.
  2. Supportive organisational practices including access to mentoring and employee perception of diversity practices were seen as key.
  3. The quality of relationships people have with each other, namely the extent to which people interact on an interpersonal level each day and how rewarding these relationships are. Familiarity between team members, as well as the quality of relationships between team members and with those outside the team were characteristics found to drive psychological safety.
  4. Team structure and ways of working including how reward and recognition is shared across the team and decision-making approaches which enable collective responsibility. Autonomy was another characteristic although this was only found to be positive when project goals and processes were closely aligned with the wider organisation’s objectives.


Quality over quantity matters the most

A 2018 study which examined more than 9,000 teams from around the world found that the quality of communication in a team was the most important thing in enabling effective performance. They also found that the more familiar people were with each other in a team, the more positive the impact of communication on performance. You can download this checklist I have created to help you improve communication in your team.

While commenting on the specific use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the context of recovering from natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), researchers found that they key to effective teamwork during a crisis is the level and quality of communication, including being able to improve communication methods in the  moment.

Multi-agency communication

If your team needs to work with other teams in other organisations during a crisis or emergency, one study found that coordination between agencies improved when communication networks were less centralised. The positive multi-disciplinary team behaviours that enabled the effective handling of a crisis included – joint decision-making, sharing of resources and sharing task-related information. Hurdles that got in the way of good multi-disciplinary team working during a crisis included people being uncertain of their roles, uncertainty and/or lack of clarity around decisions, and conflicting priorities.

In summary, here are 5 practical actions you can take to build a resilient team:

  1. Review the systems and processes that exist in your team. Are they fit for purpose?
  2. Develop your leadership style so that you are using a coaching approach.
  3. Book in regular time for team building and team development. This helps people get to know each other and as we know, the more people know each other, the more likely they are to better handle a crisis.
  4. Role model asking for and receiving feedback. And share your learning when something you’ve tried has failed, using the Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a framework.
  5. Review the effectiveness communication in your team using the checklist mentioned earlier in this blog.

If you liked this post, you might also like these:

10 leadership skills all leaders need

How to reap the benefits of psychological safety? Sow the right seeds

Weathering the storm: The role of leaders in organisational resilience

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