Resilience inputs have become increasingly common in leadership development courses. The resilience of leaders is recognised as a key skill in career success, but now the gaze is being extended from the demands on the individual, to recognising the resilience needs of teams.
When resilience first entered the workplace, it was a word associated with the ability of IT infrastructures to withstand cyber-attacks or of the organisation to withstand an economic downturn. Resilience, a term drawn from the physical sciences, was the ability of a structure to absorb a shock and stay standing. As organisations identified the workplace as a place of increasing uncertainty and complexity, a view of resilience drawn from the biological sciences emerged. Here resilience is the ability to adapt, and remain agile in order to survive when conditions are harsh, and where there may be no return to normality. Resilience then shifted into a concern about how the most talented could remain flexible and keep going under pressure without succumbing to stress or burn out. This view has informed many of the resilience initiatives that focus on well-being. However, organisations are now recognising that looking at the resilience of the leader cannot be separated from that of their teams, because of the inter-dependency.
The Leadership – Team Resilience Link
When working with leaders, they often share the private story that is shaping the resilience they bring to their role. Beyond the demands of restructuring, mergers, the uncertainty of Brexit, stretching targets, limited resources and increased competition they recognise that their performance within work is also shaped by life events that impact on how they think, feel and behave. Illness, mental health issues with teenagers, divorce, aging parents, bereavement are all part of life yet, are often viewed as issues to be compartmentalised when at work. Talk with leaders and they will own that while they occupy a leadership role, there are times when they are less resourced to lead. They see it as a personal issue they have to manage a way through, hoping others will not notice, but what they often do not realise is that the degree of resilience they bring to their work has an impact on that available to their team. Conversely, the collective resilience of the team impacts on that of the leader.
There is a resilience chain that links the leader to those they lead. Unknowingly, whatever level of resourcefulness they are carrying with them has a contagious effect on others. This effect has been exacerbated by the ergonomics of the workplace. Back in the day, a leader would have their own office. On a bad day, they could close the door and lie low. They could take refuge after a tough meeting, and let the emotions settle. Now, the leader’s emotions are not only more visible, but the energy field that they create impacts more easily on those who occupy the same area. The team cannot help but be infected by a sense of optimism, confidence, meaningless or indecision that the leader is bringing into the communal space.
Can we learn Resilience Lessons from Sports Teams?
Given that most work activities are conducted in teams, it is surprising how little attention has been given to the resilience of teams, beyond that of high performing sports teams. One study of the UK World Cup winning team in 2003 concluded that the resilience of the team was the product of the visionary leadership of their coach, who provided a long-term view of what they could achieve, and communicated his belief in ways that aligned the team behind him. It was supported by team members consciously generating positive emotions, whilst being willing to look setbacks in the face with a mindset of learning rather than denial or blaming. They also took on a strong sense of team identity so that they thought like a unit. This sense of unity helped forge strong bonds and a willingness to support each other, as well as collectively setting their own high standards. It as a formula which enabled the team to create a historic victory, but the use of sporting analogies has its limitations for individuals working within the complexity of organisations.
Team resilience from a wider perspective
I looked instead to the 50 years of research on resilience conducted with populations as diverse as children living in conditions of extreme deprivation, those living with life limiting illnesses, the unemployed and those in leadership roles, and found consistent themes which are as relevant to a team as they are to individuals. Themes such as:
- Having a strong sense of why the work matters to them, so that it is worth sticking through times of difficulty.
- Having support available from team members and being willing to ask for support so that times of need are accepted rather than judged.
- Having a sense of confidence that the team has the skills to deliver.
- Being able to operate from a sense of reality based optimism
By getting team members to assess their team against key criteria for fuelling resilience, the door is opened for rich conversations that acknowledge both what is present in the team that is supportive of their goals, and what merits attention as a team issue. It moves resilience from being an individual issue of nutrition, exercise and sleep to being a key contributor to their joint success. It positions resilience as fuelled by the resilience of the whole rather than solely that of the leader.
Understanding team resilience in the world’s best athletes: a case study of a rugby union world cup winning team. Morgan PBC, Fletcher D and Sarkar M, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2015, 16, 91-100
Carole has been an executive and career coach for over 20 years. She specialises in emotional resilience. She has a Doctorate in Resilience Coaching and her latest book ‘Resilience’ was nominated as coaching book of the year.