As in elite sport, in business the ability of a team to ‘weather the storm’ and ‘bounce back’ has never been more important. In sport when a team crumbles it’s for all to see, witness the England soccer team at the UEFA Football Championships 2016. The resilience of a sales or a project team may be less apparent, but teams form the crucial building blocks of any organisation.
Much has been written about how individuals can achieve the psychological quality of personal resilience, there’s plenty too on organisational resilience, but little has been written about the collective resilience of small groups or teams.
Resilience in the world of adventure
The world of exploration provides a great example of personal and collective resilience. In extreme circumstances the crew of the Endurance survived against incredible odds under the command of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Disaster struck the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) when the ship became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed. The crew escaped by marching and camping on the sea ice until it disintegrated, then using the three lifeboats to reach Elephant island, ultimately reaching the island of South Georgia after a voyage of 720 nautical miles.
Personal resilience has been described by many as comprising a range of things depending on their point of view, from aspects of character (e.g., self-belief and intrinsic motivation); mindset (e.g., self-awareness and emotional intelligence) and pressure coping strategies (the ability to maintain focus and prioritise).
Resilience in teams
As a rule of thumb, teams are commonly defined as being team’s if they are ‘more than the sum of their parts’. By extension, is collective resilience therefore the sum of the individual resilience of members of the group or team? If only it was that simple! Group dynamics, peer pressure, group think, and many other things mean that the this is not the case. When faced with challenging situations people are prone to irrational and maladapted responses. Panic can become contagious. Conscious or unconscious emotional contagion has been shown to reduce the probability of rational risk-taking, creativity, and openness to new ideas, resulting in the stagnation of idea flow. Instincts for personal survival override a coordinated response.
Achieving collective resilience relies on different things. So how can we help teams be resilient, rationally optimistic, solution-focused, and open to ideas when under intense pressure?
Six things you can do to build greater collective team resilience:
- Create an environment of both trust and psychological safety. Collective resilience doesn’t arise naturally. Teams need leaders. They play a key role in fostering trust and a psychologically safe environment. As Professor Amy Edmondson the Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management at Harvard Business School has ably described, collective learning, key to enabling a team to ‘bounce back’ can only truly exist when the interpersonal risks that inhibit it are overcome. No-one wants to look a fool in front of their colleagues, make a mistake, ask ‘naive’ questions, seek help or volunteer a crazy idea unless they feel safe to do so. The importance of trust in teams has long been established and is included in most team building, but this isn’t the same as psychological safety.
- Create a ‘shared’ sense of purpose. Being told what you need to do as a team, however well explained may elicit ‘buy-in’ but this is a relatively low level of commitment. As Professor Hackman, a Professor of Social & Organizational Psychology at Harvard noted, one of the fundamentals of an effective team is that team members know – and agree on – what they’re supposed to be doing. A clearly articulated and compelling sense of direction unites a team. This can only be achieved in an environment that invites questions, challenges and ideas. Only in this way will ownership and high levels of commitment be achieved, greater than mere ‘buy-in’. Out of necessity this means leaders have to tolerate and even welcome apparent dissent if they are to avoid mediocre performance.
- Foster a collective identity. Actively encourage the development of a shared sense of identity. As team-members consciously come to identify more closely with the team, they realise that what effects the team is more important to them as an individual, by association. The collective needs become more important to the extent that sometimes individuals are even willing to sacrifice their own personal needs. Stereotyping whose ‘in’ and whose ‘out’ of the team plays an important role in determining a team’s ability to operate cohesively. A shared experience of adversity can enhance team cohesion. This sense of cohesion develops from a sense of shared fate. Evidence suggests that teams who have experienced small setbacks tend to cope better with big ones later. Developing a coherent and inclusive sense of team identity is a key step towards being effective and resilient. If divisions are to be avoided, pay careful consideration to how team members define team membership, the habitual patterns of interaction between one-another, the language and terminology used and the status and power afforded to different team members.
- Promote a shared sense of belief. Building on the sense of shared identity, a team’s shared belief (a concept first described by Bandura in the 1970’s) in its ability to achieve a task can be both positive and negative. “Whether you believe you can, or think you can’t - you’re probably right”, to quote Henry Ford. This is equally true at the team level as it is at the individual level. The power of team belief is an aggregation of individual team members’ perception of the team’s capability to succeed. Arguably, a teams’ level of confidence will have a determining effect on the ability of a team to succeed in spite of any setbacks. Ample anecdotal evidence supports the notion that how a team performs is inextricably tied to how confident the team feels about the task at hand. Collective-belief, like self-belief is the product of a complex process of self-persuasion that relies on performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences and verbal persuasion, that can and should be positively influenced and managed.
- Cultivate positive attitudes and emotions. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, the ‘love lab’ at the University of Michigan described how Dr Gottman has been analysing the way couples interact and predicting with astounding accuracy whether a couple will be together 15 years later. Gottman and his team based their predictions on ratings of how positive or negative a couple’s interactions were. In a similar way Losada has studied the group behaviour of high performing teams. Tracking every single word and gesture of their interactions, whether people's statements were 1) positive or negative, 2) self-focused or other-focused, and 3) based on inquiry (asking questions) or advocacy (defending a point of view) Losada has been able to produce fascinating insights. High performing teams had unusually high positivity ratio, at about 6:1 positive to negative statements compared to the low group at 1:1 and the middle group at 2:1. The high performers were also characterized by high levels of inquiry (asking questions) compared to defending their own views, casting attention outward as much as inward.
- Build the skills of ‘dialogue’. Developing the skills to enable team-members to enter into open and honest dialogue will equip them to balance competing needs and views and communicate and collaborate to their best advantage. Having established a ‘safe’ environment this involves learning to skilfully disagree without being disagreeable. Research at MIT found that most successful business people are trained to be great advocates, putting forth their ideas and persuading others to adopt them. By contrast, inquiry skills are much under-developed or appreciated. In order to embrace the diverse expertise and perspectives of other people, team members need to learn to balance advocacy and inquiry to promote mutual learning. Arguably, a team’s ability to hold a constructive dialogue is a key barometer of its ability to perform effectively. In his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together Dr Isaacs has described the skills that enable teams and groups to turn collaborative thought into collective action.
Bringing it all together
High performing teams and their leaders take active steps to ensure they learn and develop as a team rather than leaving it to chance. As a with personal resilience, team resilience is an attribute that can be developed.
What other things should teams and team leaders focus on to make their teams more resilient? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, as I’m passionate about the topic and want to learn more.
Metris Leadership helps businesses build high performance teams, optimized for the challenges of the 21st Century because great teams provide standout competitive advantage.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A former member of the British Army Nick Coyle is a Director of Metris Leadership and specialises in leadership and team development having worked for many years in management consultancy. His current and former clients range across many industries and sectors. A believer in practising what you preach, he continues to study and research a number of topics in the fields of teamwork and leadership.