You don’t need to be told that the business cycle is turning. Each week brings fresh news of layoffs, restructurings, all-hands-on-deck strategy shifts — some proactive, others too little too late. For seasoned leaders, these developments aren’t so much troubling as energizing, harbingers of a more complex and challenging near-term business environment.
In truth, the business environment has been complex and challenging for years, even before the unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. The world feels increasingly uncertain, unpredictable, even unmoored.
Times like these test teams and their leaders. Those that can draw on deep reserves of resilience tend to emerge stronger (or at least less dinged-up) than those that haven’t put in the work.
In Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams, Bradley L. Kirkman and I drew on decades of research and experience to identify four resources critical for team resilience: team confidence, teamwork roadmaps, capacity to improvise, and psychological safety..
While attainable, establishing these resources within your team requires diligent planning, capable execution, and a willingness to think outside the box. Maintaining them demands persistence and flexibility in a rapidly evolving business environment. And they’re only part of a broader set of capabilities that truly resilient teams exhibit.
Make Your Team More Resilient in Turbulent Times — Here’s How
Of course, this is a challenge you must meet head-on if you’re serious about competing in an ever more uncertain future. Here’s what you can begin doing today to make your team more resilient for tomorrow.
1. Take Stock of Your Team’s Resilience Right Now
Start by “scoring” your team’s present capacity for resilience. You’ll want to assess the status of each of the four resources identified in our book: team confidence, teamwork roadmaps, capacity to improvise, and psychological safety.
Though it’s more qualitative than financial or productivity metrics — cash flow, billable hours, and so on — resilience is quantifiable. Use anonymous surveys to benchmark each team member’s assessment of their own individual resilience and the team’s as a whole. Combine each member’s team scores into a blended average to be shared publicly with the entire group. Set aside individual scores for use in performance reviews, coaching sessions, and other one-on-one exercises.
Individual scores may be useful for intra-team dialogues and team-building work as well, but sharing them openly could also be counterproductive. If you’d like to go this route, present the option in an all-hands format and respect the consensus (or vote) either way. If nothing else, this exercise will generate buy-in and perhaps even enthusiasm for the coming resilience-building work.
2. Facilitate Open, Frank Dialogue Internally and Externally
Resilient teams run on open, frank communication. Not just within teams and working groups, but externally as well — to other teams within the organization and to stakeholders beyond.
Your team already has a common language; it wouldn’t function without one. But that language might be too basic, stilted or cautious to support the work that needs to be done, let alone build the capabilities your team needs to succeed in the new normal. Open and honest intra-team dialogue is a prerequisite for psychological safety, one of the four all-important resources for resilient teams.
Be prepared for some resistance. If your team hasn’t practiced true candor in the past, it’s not going to happen overnight, and you’ll need to facilitate some uncomfortable conversations early on — uncomfortable conversations that go beyond the sort of discomfort you’re accustomed to in one-on-one coachings or redirections. If your budget allows, don’t hesitate to bring in an outside facilitator to get this work started. They’ll break the ice and leave you with a toolkit to continue the job.
3. Break Down Internal Barriers to Understanding
Frank internal dialogue is just the beginning. To build a truly resilient team, you need to cultivate empathy and understanding within your team. Honest communication, empathy and understanding are important components of psychological safety.
Your teammates don’t all have to be best friends or even like one another on a personal level, but you’ll never meet challenges together if you’re not able to imagine yourselves in any of the others’ shoes.
Traditionally, this has been done through intentional, facilitated conversations — team-building meetings, really — where individual members willingly share aspects of their personal stories. If this format works for your team, great. If not, consider an approach more conducive to a remote or hybrid work environment, like an internal team newsletter or Slack channel.
4. Integrate Teamwork Roadmaps Into Your Strategy and Workflows
While you’re taking these early steps to foster psychological safety within your team, lead the more tactical work of roadmapping your team’s activities in the coming months, quarters, or even years. Teamwork roadmaps should ensure that all team members know their own roles, responsibilities, and job assignments but also those of their fellow team members.
Choose whichever format works best for you. Some teams prefer Gantt charts or team charters, while others prefer traditional calendar formats or flowcharts. Go farther outside the box if you wish. As long as you can coherently lay out actionable, deadlined goals that your team understands and buys into and that serve your overarching team strategy, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the finished product looks like.
5. Identify Persistent Stressors Within Your Team and Organization
This should grow naturally out of the frank, open conversations you’ll (hopefully) have within your team moving forward. You can also collect feedback on internal stressors privately, using anonymous surveys and one-on-one meetings as necessary.
The goal here is to develop a clearer picture of what’s holding your team back, individually and collectively. From there, you’ll lay out a roadmap to more efficient, productive, and nimble work — with input from the next exercise on this list.
Because new stressors emerge all the time in uncertain environments, this will be an ongoing project, but it’s worth it to build team confidence and improvisation capacity.
6. Identify Your Team Members’ Top Needs
This is another critical component of team confidence-building. If your team has any client-contact functions, you may already be familiar with the broad strokes in an external sense — identifying and responding to changing customer needs is a vital “recession-proofing” exercise, which is likely top of mind both for your team and your organization this year.
As with stressor identification, your aim here is to understand what’s holding your team back. In a literal sense, you want to understand what exactly each member needs to be successful. The same goes for the team as a whole. Anonymized surveys, one-on-one conversations, open team dialogues — use any and all tools at your disposal.
7. Incentivize Self-Improvement
Maybe don’t say out loud to your team that you’re “helping them help themselves” (cringe). But let’s be honest: That’s your objective when you incentivize team members to gain new skills, certifications, capabilities — whatever — that strengthen their credentials, improve their performance, and, yes, make them more marketable outside your organization.
It’s natural for leaders, even great ones, to feel possessive of team members. This is all the more so in still-tight job markets, where employee retention is top of mind and the financial and time cost of replacing a key employee seems astronomical. But it’s not in your interest to freeze your team in amber. And offering concrete, valuable incentives like tuition reimbursement and on-the-clock time for side projects is just as likely to add value (if not more so) by boosting morale, job satisfaction, and capacity for improvisation while reducing attrition.
8. Commit to Mutual Support While Allowing Individual Team Members the Space They Need
Your team members already do this in their family and social networks. While it’s not healthy for your team to think of itself as a “family” per se — too many blurred lines there — you should encourage these norms in the workplace.
Exactly how this looks for you will depend a lot on who your team is and how its members work. In remote and hybrid settings, “mutual support” might mean recognizing birthdays and happy life events without making big deals of them; in other words, not much.
More important is allowing team members space and time as needed, when they’re experiencing personal loss or mental health challenges or just need to step back for a moment. For better or worse, most employees perform better and burn out slower when they’re able to work (and not work) on their own terms. And that makes the teams they support stronger and more resilient.
It’s Time to Prepare for a New Normal
We live in a hyperconnected world where everyone with a smartphone has access to real-time images, video, and commentary beamed across countries and continents. So, it’s difficult not to feel as if the planet is spinning out of control.
Even the most sober-minded business leaders feel this way, and not without reason. Tremendous uncertainty reigns around the near-term macroeconomic climate, labor dynamics, and resource availability. Furthermore, these are all against a backdrop of looming geopolitical and environmental challenges that are far beyond our control.
This is the new normal, and it’s past time teams and organizations prepared for it. With the road map laid out here — and other potentially invaluable resources like our book — you can begin equipping your team (and yourself) with the resilience necessary to face it head-on.
We’ve Been Here Before, Sort Of
One final thought: You and leaders like you are not wrong for feeling as if today’s challenges are “extra.” In other words, you may feel they are beyond what you ever expected you’d have to face as a leader. But some perspective is warranted. Business leaders before you have faced enormous challenges in the past. Challenges included ones ranging from the sudden shift to total war footing in the 1940s to the devastating energy crisis of the 1970s. These challenges even extended into the economic devastation wrought by the housing bubble of the 2000s.
These were times of great disruption, but also great reinvention. Resilient organizations and teams survived and even thrived through them, emerging stronger on the other side. These organizations and teams helped fuel the 1950s’ broad rise in living standards. From there, they fueled the long economic booms of the 1980s and 1990s. This then led to the 2010s’ technological revolution that continues to remake the socioeconomic landscape (and, yes, cause plenty of disruption on its own account). With the right tools, you too can meet the current moment — and whatever comes next.
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