Challenges are inevitable in any organization—whether they’re an early-stage startup or an established industry heavyweight, and whether they employ 20 people or 1,000. For companies to maintain high-performance and well-being, they need to have resilient teams. This is especially vital when they have employees who regularly carry out high-stake work in challenging environments.
Resilience is the capacity for stress-related growth, and it exists at the individual and group level. In today’s work climate, we need teams that can respond to challenges quickly and efficiently.
The characteristics of resilient teams
A resilient team doesn’t mean a bunch of emotionless individuals who never get stressed when things go wrong. What it does mean is a team who can resolve challenges as effectively as possible. They have a system to maintain team health and resources. They can recover from setbacks quickly, and they display the ability to handle future challenges together. Some common team challenges that require resilience might include the following:
- Difficult and/or high-stakes assignments
- High consequence work
- Unclear team roles
- Innovating—the process itself is full of missteps and setback
- Angry/upset/skeptical clients
- Poor results
- Ambiguous direction/goals
Both of us spend a considerable amount of our professional lives studying resilience. Here’s what we know about what resilient teams do differently:
1. They recognize and actively mitigate against the “producer-manager dilemma”
In our experience with professional services firms, the more senior the employee, the more likely they are to run into what Harvard researchers call the “producer-manager” dilemma. As these professionals gain seniority, they have to continue to “produce” client/technical work, but at the same time, pick up managerial responsibility. This requires them to invest more time, focus, and thoughtful energy into the healthy functioning of teams.
Unfortunately, the urgent often crowds out the essential, and incentive structures almost always reward productivity over management and leadership. Without a strong cultural and organizational commitment, professional teams are often dramatically under-led. They are also less likely to achieve the full benefits that a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive team effort can provide. Building awareness of this dilemma is the first step towards mitigating against it.
2. They stay motivated
Professionals choosing to work in challenging environments most often exhibit the personality traits associated with a high need for achievement. Some of these traits, such as a high need for autonomy and fierce competitiveness, can disrupt the formation of resilient teams. Team members may resist collaboration and view team members rivals or roadblocks rather than sources of new information, ideas, talents, and support.
Resilient teams counteract those tendencies by accessing the power of intrinsic motivation. Research shows that focusing on intrinsic goals leads to higher performance, well-being, and motivation for teams. Team members become more intrinsically motivated when they have a choice or a say in how their work unfolds. They need to feel like they belong on the team and feel confident in their ability to learn more challenging skills. It’s up to leaders to create a team environment that supports those valuable outcomes.
3. They build psychological safety and belonging
A critical foundation of resilient teams is psychological safety. People need to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, which means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and partially formed ideas. Research found that teams that employ more positive emotions and focus on solidifying the connectedness of the people within their teams experience more of this type of openness, which leads to higher levels of team resilience. Teams that are able to discuss both positive and negative experiences are better able to work through adversity and have higher levels of trust, which leads to higher levels of resilience.
4. They take an appreciative and participative approach
It’s crucial for teams to identify areas where they are struggling, but it’s also important to identify (and celebrate) their strengths on an ongoing basis. Teams who are spread around the globe, for example, need a strong “why” to stay motivated. They need to discuss what matters most to them, what they want the team to look like, and what changes they are willing to make to achieve this vision. Participative team leaders involve team members before they introduce an initiative, so that team members understand the purpose of the work.
5. They prioritize well-being
Resilient teams openly talk about stress and burnout. Burnout is a process of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy caused by a disconnect or an imbalance between key job demands and job resources. It is highly correlated with lower levels of morale, turnover, and disengagement. Interestingly, structured team debriefs or after-action reviews have been linked to lower levels of team member vulnerability to burnout. Why? Debriefing facilitates information exchange and elaboration, so there is less ambiguity (which is known to accelerate burnout). It also enables team member support and increases self-reflection and self-efficacy.
More and more companies are aware that resilience is a necessary trait in the workplace and are providing training and resources relating to the building of their employees’ resilience. This is a significant first step, but they can’t stop there. Companies need to invest significantly more resources and attention to the building of resilient teams.
Here’s the big picture: The markets for talent and clients have never been more global or transparent, and the competition for them isn’t slowing down anytime soon. As technology like AI increasingly disrupts and replaces traditional service delivery, professionals will need to distinguish themselves by providing interdisciplinary and integrated business solutions. The only way to do that in a dynamic, complex environment is in a team, and it better be a resilient one.
Paula Davis-Laack is the founder/CEO of The Stress & Resilience Institute. Scott A. Westfahl is a professor at Harvard Law School and the faculty director of Harvard Law School Executive Education.