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How to Build a More Resilient Team

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

by Gustavo Razzetti

November 24, 2021

Resilience is critical to adapt and thrive in challenging times. Hint: It requires flexibility, not strength.

No matter what the pandemic has thrown at organizations, why did some teams adapt and bounce back faster than others? The answer is resilience.

While many organizations struggled to adapt to the pandemic, many others were down but never out. They adapted and thrived amid adversity. Apple, Pandora, Unilever, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Formula Botanica – to name a few – have experienced their best results ever.

Apple CEO Tim Cook identifies resilience as “an essential part of how we have navigated this year.” Leaning on and counting on each other more than in normal times has helped the tech company deliver results that exceeded Wall Street’s expectations.

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 at the peak of World War II, “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 teams are vital to succeed in an uncertain world. The secret lies in taking ownership. Instead of fighting what they can’t control, they turn the challenge in their favor. Resilient teams meet the world on their own terms, not letting external events define their fate.

The good news is that the ability to rise above adversity is not genetic  —  your team can learn and develop it. Here’s how.

Resilience Doesn’t Require Power but Flexibility

We usually think of resilience as being strong during adversity. However, that’s a misconception. Resilience is not the same as grit – it’s the ability to bounce back after adversity; being able to manage and adapt.

Determination and grit can only take you so far. Fighting adversity is about inner motivation. People are fundamentally seeking purpose, autonomy, and mastery and they thrive in a workplace culture that enables them to maximize these qualities. The desire to achieve something bigger than themselves keeps people going – they don’t let external challenges become an excuse.  

Resilience is the ability to deal with external challenges, adapt, and thrive in the face of adversity. It’s about bouncing back. 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.

How teams deal with external events is all about mindset. It’s easy to lose control amid adversity. Resilient teams focus on what they can control rather than getting stuck on what they can’t change.

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 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. Adopting a first responder mindset to rescue ourselves from adversity.

The Characteristics of a Resilient Team

Developing resilience is a mind game.

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, accepting them as part of life. They can shift perspectives and move faster into 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.”

So, how can your team develop psychological flexibility?

Resilient teams have four characteristics, according to research by LHH and Ferrazzi Greenlight: candor, resourcefulness, compassion, and humility.

Candor: Resilient teams are psychologically safe. Members are encouraged to speak truth to each other and address ongoing issues. Does your team have an open, candid dialogue with each other?

Resourcefulness: Resilient teams bounce back from setbacks and see adversity as a challenge, not an obstacle. Rather than complaining, they use their energy to find new solutions. Do your team members get stuck complaining about what’s out of their control? Or do they employ creativity to discover solutions?

Compassion and Empathy: Resilience is the result of teamwork and collaboration. Blame and individualism must be replaced with empathy. Do you model kindness and empathy? Do team members care for and support each other when things don’t go their way?

Humility: Resilient teams know how to ask for help. They practice intellectual humility, tapping into collective wisdom rather than pretending to have all the answers. Is it okay for your team members to ask for help?

Above all, strong interpersonal relationships are vital. Resilience is built together, not on our own.

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. What about your team?

The 3 Things Resilient Teams Do

Resilience is an active, dynamic process rather than a fixed trait. Although some people are born more resilient than others, we can all improve our ability to cope, adapt and thrive.

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, the 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

According to Boston Consulting Group, five traits define Adaptive Teams: 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 motivates people, but helps them face adversity together as a team.

Formula Botanica has become a force for change in the beauty industry by shaking up cosmetic science training and building the next generation of indie beauty entrepreneurs.

During the pandemic, Formula Botanica saw an 80 percent annual rise in student enrolment. The secret? Maintaining people energized and motivated by its purpose.

The online organic skincare school implemented basic practices to take care of its distributed team, primarily mothers. Formula Botanica made flexibility a priority. Employees choose the hours they want to work and how to balance personal and professional tasks. Everyone’s so purpose-driven that they don’t need a fixed schedule or management control to deliver the goods.

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 can be developed. Teams can learn to build resilient mindsets and behaviors.

Above all, resilient teams are ready before the crisis shows up. They invest in developing the right mindset.

Research shows that highly resilient teams take intentional actions to minimize, manage, and mend from stressful events. They reduce the impact of stressors by anticipating and preparing for challenging circumstances. As a result, they are less surprised when those events occur, better able to withstand the stress, and better equipped to mitigate the risks.

7 Ways to Build Resilience as a Team

1. Acknowledge and name your emotions

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 believe 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 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 is understanding how people react to external events and meeting them where they are. Use the Team Heartbeat Canvas to map and monitor your team’s pulse. This will help you understand what your team went through during the pandemic and how to improve its ability to adapt.

4. Build a support network

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 another 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. Refresh 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 perceptions 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 lightbulb.

It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes until he found a design that worked for his bagless 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 – improvisation and experimentation help them get to the right solution

To build more resilient teams, practice reflection both individually and collectively. Understand the emotions, separate perceptions 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.

Organizations with fearless cultures are purpose-driven, agile, and adaptive. Reach out to see how we can help your team become more resilient.

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