We tend to think about resilience as something individuals learn through experience: Get knocked down and figure out how to brush yourself off, and chances are, you'll be back on your feet faster the next time you're thrown for a loop. But the truth is that resilience is as much a characteristic of high-performing groups as of high-performing individuals. And many of the leaders I know aren’t quite sure what resilience is in the first place, much less how to imbue their workers with it.
Resilience, according to the American Psychological Association, is "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress."
Unfortunately, business throws some hard punches—not just at individuals, but at entire teams and companies, too. I’ve seen structural changes, angry clients, and missed sales opportunities cause companywide tension. Left unaddressed, these stressors snowball, creating toxic work environments. This can lead workers to mismanage stress, become disengaged, or even give up.
That puts the burden on leaders to take a proactive approach toward building team resilience. Here are three simple techniques that can help.
To build workers’ resilience, you need to buffer their collective stress. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have confirmed that social support is essential for stress management within and among groups.
While you don’t need to be everyone’s best friend, you do have to cultivate a sense of belonging and self-worth among employees so they can thrive. That doesn't mean withholding constructive feedback—just ensuring that you give it alongside encouragement and in a spirit of support.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai embodies that ally-to-all mentality. A former project manager described his leadership style to Forbes as inclusive and relationship-focused, saying, "He has great relationships. He’s just not a polarizing figure." Last October, Pichai made his first round of promotions as CEO and, in sharp contrast with CEO Larry Page, picked company veterans based primarily on their congenial, amiable personalities rather than sheer technical abilities.
To counter stress, encourage employees to take time off, express your confidence in them, and don’t admonish them when they struggle—help them through it. Kindness costs nothing, and it can pay incredible dividends by building up team resilience.
Working eight-hour days, five days per week, for 50 weeks each year is hard—and that's if your company still abides by the fading standard workweek. No matter how hard you work, if you’re just in it for the money, keeping up productivity and engagement is nearly impossible. Your teams will weaken and their work will suffer, especially when rough patches hit. To shore up their resilience, you need to continuously remind them why they work as hard as they do.
Bocconi University researcher Nicola Bellé confirmed this with an experiment on nurses assembling surgical kits—a tedious job with potentially life-altering consequences. Nurses who met the health care practitioners who were using the kits made 15% fewer errors and worked 64% longer than their peers. Simply seeing their own impact boosted the nurses’ resilience.
To increase employees’ stamina and coping skills, remind them how their work contributes to the larger purpose that animates your team and your company. Office-bound teams should visit job sites or clients’ headquarters so they can see and hear about their impact firsthand. Encourage happy clients to email compliments directly to those responsible for their accounts.
While inflexible, overstressed workers don't manage crises very well, more resilient people function better collectively, sharing the pressures of change and uncertainty among themselves. But it's up to leaders to give their team members the latitude required to form that group resilience. Communicate the company’s end goals, then step back and encourage employees to work toward them in self-directed ways.
To this end, content platform Medium has gone holacratic, crafting a self-directed environment where change comes rapidly and employees make autonomous decisions. According to Medium’s Jason Stirman, the structure has boosted employees’ productivity, reduced stress, and improved communication.
Holacracy isn’t for every organization, but all leaders should afford their most trusted employees the flexibility to choose how to execute their own duties. Newer employees might need more direction at first, but veteran team members know what needs to be done, and how they can contribute.
Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is step back. The skills your employees can gain when you do will serve all of you better when the going gets tough.
Luis Gallardo is CEO of Thinking Heads, a multinational team specializing in strategic leadership positioning. He previously served as the president of brand marketing at Burson-Marsteller for EMEA, as well as director of global brand strategy at BAV Consulting.