Building team resilience at the speed of change

Building resilient teams not only helps talent leaders create a more engaged, healthy and productive workforce, it also helps organizations be more effective in responding and recovering from crisis or change. Here are key areas to focus on when building team resilience.

As organizations grapple with increasingly volatile and disruptive times, the need for a resilient and nimble workforce has never been stronger. Resilient leaders are more effective in responding and recovering from crisis and are better able to create the kind of positive disruption that drives innovation and growth. 

Individuals and teams with high resiliency levels are more engaged, productive and open to change, as well as more responsive to customers. Further, investments in employee health and well-being have measurable impact on such business outcomes as greater productivity, stronger staff morale and motivation and greater retention and loyalty.

The what and why of resilience

Resilience can be defined as an individual’s capacity to not only bounce back from adversity, but to also bounce forward and to come out of a stressful event even stronger. Team resilience is the collective capacity of a group to adapt, innovate and thrive in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.

While most talent leaders recognize the value of resilience, resiliency remains in short supply as rates of burnout, anxiety and exhaustion reach all-time highs across all professions and industries. For instance, up to 89 percent of employees say they’ve experienced burnout in the past year. The negative impacts of work-related burnout and stress include emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, “brain fog”  and physical fatigue, all of which make it more difficult for teams to concentrate, finish tasks or juggle responsibilities.

So how can talent leaders buffer the damaging impact of workplace stress and burnout upon their teams and organization? Here are key areas to focus upon.

  1. Provide perspective

One way to provide perspective is to apply an approach called “reframing the tension,” which focuses on the learning opportunities lying within the adversity rather than despite the adversity. With this perspective, teams are more likely to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, learn from criticism and find inspiration from others. 

The practice of reframing can also be cultivated by helping teams develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset equips team members to ask for feedback and to continuously learn from new information over time. A growth mindset has been a critical focus of Microsoft’s cultural transformation since CEO Satya Nadella took over in 2014. A range of approaches have been taken to initiate and drive this long-term change, starting with engaging senior leaders to talk about and model growth mindset adoption. Leaders were encouraged to share success stories and to use various incentives – games, quizzes and a “mobile empathy museum” – to reinforce desired behaviors with team members. In addition, the talent team created conversation guides for managers to explore what a growth mindset might look with their teams. 

  1. Ensure psychological safety 

High-performing, resilient teams have one thing in common: psychological safety – the belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks in their team, such as offering unusual or creative ideas without fear of being ridiculed or rejected for speaking up. This sense of trust and safety enables members to voice their opinions openly and honestly, to explore diverse and alternative viewpoints, challenge assumptions and make sense of complex situations.  

This sense-making also reinforces shared understanding of relevant tasks and strategic priorities, as well as providing greater unity of purpose and role clarity. Studies show teams with high rates of psychological safety are better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. They are also more likely to stay with the company.

Leaders can use forums such as after-action reviews to create space for teams to reflect and learn from failures and successes. They can hold listening-sessions or “coffee talks” on difficult topics. They can encourage team members to have guided conversations to discuss successful experiences, challenges or lessons learned. Other leaders have helped teams generate their own list of “guiding principles” to reinforce a shared direction, create unity and identity and build a stronger sense of safety among team members.

  1. Show appreciation and gratitude

Teams that feel their unique contributions are appreciated and recognized have a higher sense of belonging, an increased perception of organizational support and greater levels of engagement. The odds of burnout increase by 29 percent when there are no consistent organizational strategies for recognition in place.

American Airlines intensified its recognition strategies during the pandemic to help employees stay connected and care for their passengers amid prolonged adversity and uncertainty. Beril McManus, Senior Manager, Recognition and Engagement says “Helping people feel appreciated gives them that spark to keep going. It lets them know they are on the right path, that they are being noticed, and people care. When times are tough, it’s even more important to do it.” 

In 2019, the company launched an easy-to-use platform, Nonstop Thanks, to make recognition more accessible and to give more than 13,000 team members the opportunity to recognize their peers. By the end of 2020, every people leader had used the platform to recognize team members. 

Customer Service Manager, Sebastian Madara, uses recognition to reinforce safe behaviors at work when his teams board, taxi in and unload planes. “When employees are recognized, they’ll go above and beyond to help you out. When we’re short staffed or short on manpower, team members will volunteer to stay and go the extra mile.” 

  1. Prioritize well-being

As teams continue to experience stress related to the ways their lives and work have been upended by the pandemiccompanies of varying sizes and industries are finding new ways to ensure employee well-being. Mozilla shut down the entire company for a “wellness week.” PepsiCo and Verizon increased paid time off and child- or elder-care benefits as well as flexible work schedules. Shopify instituted “Rest & Refuel Fridays” globally to encourage employees to recharge and reenergize themselves. At IBM, the talent development team designed a dashboard called “People Insights & Nudges,” which provides “Fitbit-like” nudges to managers on leadership behaviors they can adopt in real time. For example, the nudges encourage managers to consider things such as: Who hasn’t been taking vacation and is in danger of burning out? Who’s due for a coaching session or a chat with their mentor? 

To foster the kind of employee-centric work climate that reduces burnout and increases well-being, employees across roles and levels must be encouraged — even expected — to rest, recharge and recover as a matter of personal effectiveness and well-being and to maintain and sustain peak performance. 

  1. Amplify management support

Leaders set the tone for resilience by the values and behaviors they model, reward and reinforce. Research shows the demonstrated resilience of supervisors improves the resilience of those they supervise. But manager burnout — especially among millennials — has increased from 27 percent in 2020 to 35 percent in 2021, according to a recent Gallup report.

One of the critical tasks of talent leaders, then, is to build up managers’ personal resilience as well as equip them with relevant tools for setting up safe spaces for teams. At Biogen, senior leaders hold workshops with small groups on trust and psychological safety and how to lead in an environment of uncertainty. Here, senior leaders act as a support network for smaller cohorts in order to model and reinforce “human-centered” leadership behaviors to direct reports. To enable time for leaders’ self-reflection and rejuvenation, Biogen also has a “no meeting week” three times a year.

In short, cultivating resilience isn’t just a nice-to-have, but a strategic imperative for any organization seeking to re-set for the next normal of churn and change. Practices promoting a resilient workforce not only build a stronger immunity to change, but also contribute to higher productivity, lower health care costs, increased job satisfaction, less absenteeism — and better overall financial performance.

In these tough times, teams are looking to leaders for positive support, hope and direction. While it takes a wide range of cultural levers for resiliency to take hold, resilient teams are ultimately built by resilient leaders who have the self-awareness, commitment and compassion to manage their own resilience, while staying attuned to the energy and well-being of those they lead. It starts with the intention to show up as a resilient coach and role model. How are you and your leaders showing up for team resilience?