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4 ways to build a resilient team

As we navigate another year of remote work in a global pandemic, our resilience continues to be tested. Here are tips for leaders to help their teams respond to the adversity that surrounds us

Posted February 5, 2021 by Maddy Cimino

Reading time 6 min

The massive shift in work life, the strain of the pandemic, the continued crisis of racial injustice, and the uncertainty of economic and government changes have pushed the boundary of what people can endure, especially in the workplace. 

Data indicates that employees around the world are under more pressure than ever before. Future Forum’s most recent Remote Employee Experience Index shows that work-life balance (–9.2), stress and anxiety (–6.2), and satisfaction with working arrangement (–6.0) are all lower than in the previous quarter’s report. What can help people endure this period of extraordinary stress? Resilience. 

Resilience is the capacity to face and overcome adversity. And the good news is that leaders can help their employees strengthen their resilience. Doing so reaps valuable rewards for individuals and teams. According to the Harvard Business Review, resilience “has been shown to positively influence work satisfaction and engagement, as well as overall well-being, and can lower depression levels.” 

Research from Deloitte tells us that individual performance is intrinsically linked to team composition and organizational adaptability. Taking this concept a step further, resilient individuals result in resilient organizations, where adapting to change becomes part of the company’s DNA. 

1. Acknowledge uncertainty

Whether it’s a smaller change at your organization or a broader crisis due to the pandemic, do not avoid talking about adversity. While it can be tough for leaders to know the right thing to say in certain situations, if you don’t address what is happening around you and your team, you leave people feeling uneasy and unsure—not ideal conditions for resilience.

When there is an adverse event, whether outside or within your company, address it as soon as possible. Open the dialogue and create the space for your team to process it together. But don’t feel like you need to have all the answers; acknowledging what you don’t know builds trust and shows confidence. 

Then, create space at an individual level, allowing your direct reports to share things they might not be comfortable communicating with a wider audience. Actively listen to what they say, and don’t feel the need to jump in with fixes. Do your best to meet your employees where they are and affirm what they are feeling.

In an HBR article about how to discuss the recent violence at the U.S. Capitol with your team, the authors offer specific examples of dialogue that leaders can use to acknowledge what their team members are going through:

  • “I recognize you might not be able to articulate all your feelings, and that’s okay.”
  • “I know it might be hard for any of us to get our heads around what happened.”
  • “I understand that you might be distracted today.”

When it comes to challenges and changes within your company, leaders should embrace transparency and open communication. Punit Renjen, the CEO of Deloitte Global, explains that setting a regular cadence of communication is critical. By being transparent about current realities—including what you don’t know—you inspire trust. Try adopting a policy of shorter, more frequent updates based on what you know and filling in the details later, as you have them. 

2. Show confidence and trust in your direct reports

Confidence is an important characteristic when embracing uncertainty. And trust is a key component of psychological safety. These two qualities combined greatly bolster a team’s resilience. 

The many new challenges your reports are facing may shake their confidence, but you can boost it by actively conveying your faith in them. 

  • Ask team members to demonstrate their mastery of a particular skill as a way to celebrate their abilities.
  • Highlight wins in a public forum, such as a team meeting or a Slack channel.
  • Set up check-ins to regularly discuss progress on individual goals and create strategies to meet them. 

In addition to uplifting your employees and reminding them of their strengths, show them that you trust them! Be clear and ensure mutual alignment on goals, but then allow your direct reports to work when it makes sense for them to work. Going a step further, encourage them to take some time off to recharge (a key part of building resilience).

Giving your team the freedom to pick their own working hours and to take time when they need it shows that you have faith in their abilities and trust them to do the right thing. Leaders should model the behavior: take vacation, say goodbye to the 9-to-5, and prioritize recovery time. 

3. Create moments of connection

Vulnerability is a key part of creating community in the workplace. Google’s massive initiative to understand the conditions that make the perfect team, Project Aristotle, found that when a team leader shares something personal about themselves, it causes others to do the same. A deeper sense of community emerges because people are less worried about impression management.

People are social and relationship-driven. When team members have a true connection and mutual trust, they thrive. Data from our most recent Remote Employee Experience Index shows that workers at companies that made an investment in building team cohesion in a remote-first world are:

  • 27% more likely to feel that remote work is better for their sense of belonging than working in the office
  • More likely to agree that “I feel like I belong at my company” (58%), compared with office-based workers (55%)

Team meetings are a frequent and opportune time to increase the team’s sense of connection. Spend a few minutes at the beginning focused solely on relationship building. Model the conversation by sharing your highlights and lowlights of the day, or poke fun at what your kid or dog is doing in the background.

Set up dedicated time for the team to detach from work and have fun together too. Working from home doesn’t mean you need to forgo opportunities to celebrate, call out birthdays and laugh together. On the Future Forum team and across Slack, we’ve heard of creative bonding activities like Goat-2-Meeting, a facilitated “river of life” exercise and Water Cooler Trivia. These are some easy ways to re-energize the team and stoke morale.

4. Encourage your team to lean on one another

Social connectedness is one of the most common tools among resilient people. Good social ties and supportive actions are particularly key during adverse events, as people rely on each other for informational and emotional support when experiencing negative emotions and performance disruptions.

BetterUp Labs, the research arm of the career coaching platform BetterUp, notes that the social support network that surrounds a person is one of the most important resilience factors. 

In challenging times, managers can encourage their direct reports to rely on and collaborate with each other. Build pairing systems that match individuals with mentors for ongoing support, or assign team members to have guided conversations among themselves on a regular basis.

Additionally, ensure that your team has ways to ask for help, to “cover” for one another when people need to take personal days. Knowing that your team will take care of things when you are out is an excellent way to deepen team connectedness.

There is power in reminding your employees that they’re not alone, and in fostering a network of support during adversity. The colleagues lending a hand will benefit as well, because helping others is one of the things that increases people’s resilience, psychologists believe.

Uncertainty and change are undoubtedly hard for all of us. But for leaders, adversity provides an opportunity to build resilience among your reports. Through your openness, encouragement and vulnerability, your employees may not only bounce back from difficult times but emerge much stronger as people and as a team.