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How to Build a More Resilient Team

Resilience doesn’t require you to be tough, but to think differently – instead of fighting external events, reframe the challenge.

by Gustavo Razzetti

December 1, 2020

Resilience is a critical ability during challenging times.No matter what life throws at people, why do some teams adapt and bounce back faster than others? What do resilient teams do to come through the other side stronger than ever?

Resilience doesn’t require you to be tough, but to think differently – instead of fighting external events, you need to reframe the challenge.

The idea of organizational resilience is not new. It has simply been taken to a new level due to globalization – the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect storm. Your ability to bounce back is not just a means to survive adversity, but also to thrive in the workplace.

As Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Resilient people succeed because they are fighters rather than victims. They meet the world on their own terms and don’t let external events define their fate.

Resilient teams are just as important to businesses as resilient individuals. The good news is that the ability to rise above is not genetic  —  everyone can learn and develop it. Here’s how.

Resilience Doesn’t Require Force but Flexibility

What is resilience? Before addressing how to help teams bounce back from hardship, it’s vital to challenge the misconceptions of resilience. Many leaders tend to confuse resilience with grit. Furthermore, they think of it as an innate trait – you are either born with it, or you are not.

However, it’s not strength but your ability to adapt that will help you thrive in adversity.

Resilience is the ability to deal with external challenges, bounce back smarter and stronger, and thrive in the face of adversity. Psychologists say it’s the ability to walk through bad experiences.

“It generally means adapting well in the face of chronic or acute adversity,” says neuroscientist Dr. Golnaz Tabibnia, an expert on the neurological basis of resilience.

External events don’t shape the outcome; your mindset does. When something goes wrong, you must focus on what you can do rather than let the situation take over.

A 12-year study of a large US telecommunications company during industry deregulation showed surprising results.

Almost 50% of the employees lost their jobs and two-thirds experienced significant stressful life events such as divorce, depression and anxiety, and heart attacks. However, one-third of the employees not only survived the challenge but actually thrived – they started their own companies or took on ‘strategically important’ jobs in other companies.

The secret of their success? As Dr. Maddi explains in his book, Resilience at work, those who thrived saw adversity not as something fixed, but fluid. They accepted the challenge and reframed tough times as an opportunity for new learning.

Dealing with tough challenges requires flexibility, not grit – having a first responder mindset will rescue yourself from adversity.

A study with war veterans found that those who exhibited lower-than-average signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tended to score highly on ‘psychological flexibility.’

People with high psychological flexibility don’t avoid difficult emotions; they accept them as part of life. They have the ability to shift perspectives and action. Psychological flexibility helps us experience discomfort or difficulty without being overwhelmed.

As psychologist and counselor Dr Selda Koydemir said, “When we remain in contact with aversive experiences and approach challenging situations in an accepting and flexible way, we become more resilient and are more likely to pursue a meaningful life.”

Psychologically flexible people are more willing to welcome discomfort because they have clear goals and a purpose. Focusing on what really matters helps them turn adversity into a challenge.

The 3 Things Resilient Teams Do

Resilience is an active, dynamic process rather than a fixed trait. Although some people are born with more resilience than others, everyone can boost their ability to cope, thrive, and flourish when things get tough.

What makes some organizations more resilient than others is “how well the interdependent and interactive systems are working,” according to Michele Grossman, a resilience expert at Deakin University in Melbourne.

Resilience is a reflex; a way of facing and understanding the world, according to Diane Coutu. After researching many theories, HBR senior director concluded that resilient people share three unique traits:

  • Adaptability – an unwavering acceptance of reality
  • Purpose – a sense that life is meaningful 
  • Creativity – an uncanny ability to improvise 

These three things are what resilient teams do.

1. They adapt to reality rather than fight what they can’t control

Five traits define Adaptive Teams, according to Boston Consulting Group: one voice, sense-and-respond capacity, information processing, freedom within a framework, and boundary fluidity. Once they agree on the “true north,” they are consistent but have the freedom to adjust tactics based on real-time information.

When the pandemic hit Joyride, the mobile café truck with branches in New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco had to close its doors. The team quickly adapted and pivoted to a direct-to-consumer delivery service that included their new Boxed Cold Brew. 

2. They are purpose-driven, not letting short-term events derail them from long-term goals

Research shows that 76% of employees crave a sense of purpose. Being part of something bigger than themselves not only drives people, but helps them face adversity together as a team.

Delivery Hero, the world's leading local delivery platform, is on a mission

to deliver memorable experiences – fast, easy, and to people’s doors. Driver by its core value, “We are Heroes because we care”, the company broadened its social responsibility commitment to support local communities in their battle against COVID-19.

By partnering with local governments, public institutions, and charities, Delivery Hero played a crucial role in ensuring people receive the goods they need.

3. They are creative, prioritizing experimentation over proven methods

Thinking on your feet is not just an ability, but a prerequisite to thriving in adversity. Resilient teams feel comfortable improvising. When everything seems uncertain, only a trial-and-error approach will help uncover the solution.

When one of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks exploded 205,000 miles above the Earth, there was no time for complaining. The Apollo 13 mission operations team started experimenting with miscellaneous objects on the shuttle until they could discover a solution to remove carbon dioxide from the lunar module. The fast ingenuity of this team was able to bring the crew back to Earth safe and sound.

The good news for building team resilience is that most psychologists agree that it's something that can be developed. Teams can learn to build resilient mindsets and behaviors.

7 Ways to Build Resilience as a Team

1.     Acknowledge and name your emotions – affect labeling

Name it to tame it. Our first response to adverse events is emotional; understanding what we are feeling – and why – is vital. We must face our emotions to avoid them clouding our perception and behavior.  

“Affect labeling” is a psychological technique for putting your emotions into words. Research shows that simply labeling how you feel when an emotion is triggered positively affects our brains and bodies. It’s an effective method of self-regulation.

Team members can practice “affect labeling” using the Emotional Culture Deck. Ideally, have them reflect individually and then share as a team. Reflect on commonalities and differences. What’s driving the gap?

2.     Focus on what you can control

Fighting what’s out of your control will get you stuck. Resilient team members have self-control — they believed that they, not the environment, define their fortune. Realizing that most life events are out of your control is a critical step to bouncing back together.

Reflect as a team on which events you can control or not. The ‘Regain Your Power Canvas’ is a visual way to assess this so your team can focus on what they can actually manage.

This tool leverages the principles of Judo. First, assess the 85% of things that you can’t control – the ones where we spend all of our energy fighting an uphill battle. By flipping the canvas, your team can regain control over what they can change.

3.     Reflect on your team's rhythm

Your team’s pulse can reveal a lot about its health and resilience. Just like our heart, a healthy team speeds up and slows down depending on the changing dynamics and challenges. 

Also, not every member follows the same rhythm – the key lies in understanding how people react to external events and meet them where they are. Use the Team Heartbeat Canvas to map and monitor your team’s pulse. This will help you understand how your team adapts and what to do about it.

4.     Build a support network – coaching and partnership

Being resilient requires knowing when to turn to others for help or support. Resilient team members rely on each other to overcome challenges and adversity.

Psychologist Emmy Werner, who spent 40 years studying kids from impoverished, unstable, and chaotic families, discovered that 30% of the children grew up to become successful adults— many of them even surpassed peers from more privileged backgrounds.

The secret? A resilient child was ‘lucky’ enough to had a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, teacher, or other mentor figure.

Reciprocal mentorship is a powerful way to help team members support each other –two people take on mentor and mentee roles. I use the Accountability Partnership Canvas to design successful, supportive relationships to help teams become more resilient. 

5.     Define your team purpose

Living a purpose-driven life makes it easier to accept adversity and uncomfortable experiences. Teams that are part of something bigger than themselves don’t let short-term challenges distract them from their long-term plans.

Having a purpose doesn’t make you immune; it’s about having a North Star that will guide you during stormy weather. Use the Team Purpose Canvas to design yours. A shared team purpose gives people a profound sense of connection and meaning – their mission will protect them from adversity.

6.     Focus on facts and real implications

Leadership plays a critical role in helping teams separate facts from perceptions. You don’t want your people wasting their time and energy fighting adversity.

The What? So What? Now What? method will help your team separate perception from reality. Start with objectively assessing the external event (What?), understand how it really affects the team (So What?), and ideate solutions to adapt and move forward (Now What?)

Responding to adversity objectively and factually will boost your team’s resilience. 

7.     Build a trial-and-error culture

The hard part about promoting an experimental culture is not trying new things, but recovering from failure. When experiments go wrong, blame and pride get teams stuck.

Increasing a mistake-tolerant culture requires practice. Your team will become resilient by practicing failing over and over. 

As Philip J. Messina, the Hunger Games production designer, said, “Warriors aren’t born, and they are not made. They create themselves through trial and error and by their ability to conquer their own frailties and faults."

Thomas Edison didn’t fail 1,000 times; it took 1,000 steps for him to create the light bulb.

It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes until he found a design that worked for his bag-less vacuum cleaner. Not one or three attempts, but thousands. Dyson didn’t let failure disappoint him.

A trial-and-error culture turns failure into lessons – finding innovative solutions is an iteration game, not a one-shot. Just like resilience, it takes regular practice to develop it.

Resilient Teams – Key Takeaways

Resilience is not an innate trait, but a capacity that can be developed via a dynamic process.

Resilient teams do three things:

  • They adapt to reality instead of fighting what they can’t control
  • They are purpose-driven, not letting short-term evens derail them from their long-term goals
  • They are creative and comfortable with thinking on their feet – improvising and experimentation helps them get to the right solution

To build more resilient teams, practice reflection both individually and collectively. Understand the emotions, separate perception from facts, develop strong partnerships, and build a trial-and-error culture.

Building resilience takes practice; be patient and prepare your team before adversity knocks on the door next time.

Fearless Cultures are more resilient. Reach out to see how we can help you build a more resilient organization or team.

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