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Need to Know: Maintaining Resilient Teams When Adversity Strikes

by Shannon Morrison

Bradley Kirkman, Ph.D., General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton distinguished professor of leadership in the management, innovation and entrepreneurship department at Poole College, explains the critical role teams play when navigating uncertain times.

On the front lines of fighting a global pandemic, people are going to extraordinary means to provide health care services to tens of thousands of individuals struggling with infection. And, more often than not, people are providing this help and support while working in teams. Teams are characterized by their high level of interdependence (members rely on one another to get their jobs done), mutual accountability (members are accountable to one another and to their organization, as a team), and shared goals (team members are striving to accomplish important outcomes together). In times of crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19, there is one team attribute that stands above all others as being critically important for success – team resilience.

Based on our work with thousands of NCAA coaches and numerous business teams in other industries, we define team resilience as “the capacity that a team has to bounce back after adversity.” For teams, adversity is any setback that negatively affects important team processes, such as the ability to coordinate team activities, monitor progress toward team goals, and back up one another, as needed.

Our work also identified four critical resources that help teams become more resilient over time. Importantly, these four resources are unique to teams; that is, they are quite different from what makes an individual resilient or even what makes an overall organization resilient.

Our work showed that leaders should focus on four key team attributes to make them more resilient:

1 – Team potency – defined as the collective belief of a team that it can accomplish important and significant tasks. We discovered that resilient teams need this type of “collective confidence” to overcome the type of adversity that can strike at any time. In the healthcare field, in particular, there is very little room for wavering or indecisiveness during adversity. Imagine a situation in which multiple patients are admitted simultaneously with different symptoms – very common during a pandemic. Team members must have the confidence to overcome this type of adversity and make sure that each patient is treated in a proper manner. Importantly, this a collective belief, not individual people simply believing in themselves. This type of confidence needs to exist for the entire team.

In terms of ensuring teams have potency, leaders should make sure:

  • Team goals are clear
  • There is agreement about team processes for getting things done
  • Members understand the linkages between their work goals and those of their team
  • Use transformational leadership behaviors, such as setting a clear vision and challenging team members to think differently about problems
  • Offer hypothetical trial runs of potential types of adversity in advance

2 – Team mental model of teamwork – defined as members understanding their and others’ roles, responsibilities and interactions, and being familiar with one another’s knowledge, skills and preferences. All team members need to be “on the same page” with regard to how they should work together as a team, which should enhance their ability to persevere during tough times. Imagine a patient on an operating table that goes into respiratory distress. Every member of the surgical team needs to understand (a) his/her own role; and (b) all the other team members’ roles for this specific type of adversity. Importantly, these mental models have to be correct (Are members acting appropriately at the right time?) and shared (Does everyone agree on what we should do?).

Leaders can enhance team mental models of teamwork by:

  • Holding leader briefings and coaching sessions training team members together
  • Raising awareness of constraints that might hurt team resilience
  • Encouraging shared leadership among the team members

3 – Capacity to improvise – defined as making something novel “on the fly” out of previous experiences, practices and knowledge. This is more than simply moments of brilliance. On the contrary, improvisation is a carefully thought out process of adjusting to various demands by using lessons from the past and requires careful planning and proactively rehearsing a number of different scenarios to help a team prepare for fast and effective responding. Surgical teams are often faced with making quick decisions after encountering a patient’s adverse event on an operating table. They may not always have the exact tools or equipment needed to solve each problem – thus, the capacity to use existing knowledge to create something new would be critical.

Leaders can enhance capacity to improve by:

  • Making sure everyone on the team knows who knows what (transactive memory)
  • Composing diverse teams with members who are comfortable taking different perspectives
  • Encouraging pro-diversity beliefs
  • Setting high level and meaningful goals

4 – Psychological safety – defined as the extent to which a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Interpersonal risks include offering unusual or creative ideas without fear of being criticized or ostracized by other members. In many teams, members will only share information that is already commonly known due to concerns that unique information could be rejected for being too novel. Psychological safety allows members to honestly voice their ideas and opinions, which oftentimes leads to an increased variety of perspectives when they are needed most (after adversity strikes). Think about a surgical team nurse who notices something about a patient that a surgeon does not readily see. Does the nurse feel comfortable speaking up and offering suggestions? Or does low psychological safety prevent the nurse from stopping what could be a catastrophic error?

Leaders can build psychological safety by:

  • Being inclusive and accessible
  • Asking for input from fellow team members early and often
  • Using formal team charters
  • Encouraging members to freely take different perspectives

Times of crisis, like a global pandemic, call for teams to be highly resilient. Leaders should strive to make sure their teams are potent, have a team mental model of teamwork, can improvise, and are psychologically safe. Importantly, they should do so at three points in time: before adversity strikes (minimizing adversity), during adversity (managing adversity), and after the adversity has subsided (mending after adversity).

There’s a cliché in the team world that the word TEAM stands for: Together Everyone Achieves More. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this cliché into a must-have, and resilient teams are the vehicle by which everyone can, indeed, achieve more.

This article was originally published on the Poole College of Management News website here.