How Do Good Leaders Build Resilient Teams?
Resilience is more important than efficiency in a crisis
A shorter version of this piece was originally developed for Nobl Collective.
When suddenly, everything we’ve taken for granted is called into question; when the rules are uncertain; when the future is unpredictable; when we personally and collectively feel anxiety or experience depression; when solid businesses are in jeopardy and our five-year strategic plans have been thrown out the window…
This is a time for resilience.
Resilience is the ability of people, teams, or systems to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happen.
In a moment of truly global crisis, individuals who practice resilience will both feel better and do more; and resilient teams will adapt to the new challenges and landscapes with new strategies rather than fear or resignation.
Resilience is not a trait: it’s a set of skills and practices that can be improved with time.
We frequently talk about efficiency in our organizations and teams; yet, interestingly, resilience exists in tension with efficiency. Think of just-in-time manufacturing. An incredibly efficient system is one in which there isn’t any waste or slack or unused capacity. This can be excellent and maximize profits when everything is running smoothly. However, if there is an interruption in any part of the system, the entire system goes down. It’s efficient, but the entire system is only as strong as its weakest link so it’s not very resilient.
Resilient systems are able to adapt to interruptions or shocks so that the whole system isn’t taken down at once. Resilient teams are able to adapt quickly to new challenges, re-align around modified goals, and employ their capacity in new directions within a changing landscape.
While it’s tempting to first focus on “getting things done” or “maximizing efficiency”, if you want to build a resilient team, research suggests that you should Prioritize Connection and Clarity.
Here’s why (and how to do it).
Resilience requires trust and flexibility, which means that when humans are involved resilience is rooted in relationships. One of our core human needs is to feel connected with others. Our need for human connection is so strong that loneliness can literally make you fall ill and more likely to die. And, it turns out, filling this need for connection necessary for both motivation and for fulfillment.
When Google conducted a massive, two-year study called Project Aristotle on its most effective teams it found that the most important commonality across effective teams was trust and psychological safety. Psychological safety is the belief you won’t be judged or punished for a mistake in conversation or performance. Teams that prioritize relationships and connection have more trust and psychological safety and are more resilient: they are able to better learn from failures and to adapt more quickly and effectively to new challenges.
Prioritizing connection means getting to know one another not just as colleagues but as people: Who are we as human beings? What motivates us? What is important to us personally about this work?
How do you prioritize connection?
It seems obvious that we enjoy our lives more when we have more positive emotions — but did you know it also makes us more creative at work, broadens our attention, and improves our overall health? Teams with more shared positive emotion perform better, and are more resilient.
- Laugh Together
Victor Borge once wrote, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”
Laughter and humor lowers our heart rate, relaxes our muscles — it’s a signal that the situation is safe, and that we are part of the group. Develop inside jokes, share memes, play funny games, have a dance contest or a corny joke contest.
I do different design thinking or improv exercises with my teams to have us laugh together before starting meetings. Mo Willems has a great “daily doodle” that could be fun for friends, partners, or teams. Here are some great ideas on how to make teams more playful.
2. Create Rituals (time and space for connection)
Rituals help build an important sense of meaning and consistency, reinforce team values, and ensure that moments for connection are not forgotten in the hurry of the everyday urgent tasks — they’re already built in. Resilient teams design rituals that effectively communicate values and are designed for connection.
Rituals fit particularly well in moments of transition — beginnings, endings, or transitions.
- Onboard with Gusto
You never have a second chance to make a first impression. Onboarding is a key time to make new team members feel seen and part of the team and help them forge lasting connections. On our team, I made sure a new team member had a first-day lunch with someone they’d be working closely with; every person on the team scheduled a one-hour “get to know you” chat within the first two weeks and I made sure key collaborators on other teams did the same; and we had a “welcome party” the first Friday they were on the job to introduce them to other colleagues. Helping people feel they belong right off the bat increases motivation by making them feel more socially valued, and makes them more comfortable taking initiative and asking questions.
- Eat Together
People who eat together bond together. Studies have found that eating with others provides both individual and group benefits. Team lunches are a great way to bond and build relationships, learn together about a topic of interest — and they improve team performance. There are many ways to organize team lunches. We had both “bring your own” and potluck or “bring and share” lunches, and sometimes I ordered takeaway for the whole team (including sending food delivery to our remote teammates!).
- Check-Ins at Meetings
Do you kick-off and end your meetings in ways that make people feel seen, valued, and motivated? The start of a meeting is a great way as a leader to get a sense of where your team is at, emotionally and intellectually, and also for everyone to connect with one another as humans. Doing these well increases psychological safety and trust.
Effective check-ins are quick but insightful. Try asking, “What are you bringing with you today?” or, “What’s one word to describe how you’re feeling now?” Asking questions about what’s positive that’s happening in people’s lives outside of work can serve the dual purpose of feeling seen as whole humans, and building positive emotion by “hunting the good stuff” — try: “What was one wonderful moment from your weekend?” or, “What is one thing you’re looking forward to this week?”.
- Off-board with Celebration
Off-boarding is not just for the person leaving — it’s an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments, smooth transition, emphasize shared values, and show remaining team members how they will be valued when they transition. Regardless of the reason for the off-board, how do you celebrate the contributions of teammates when they transition? Collectively reflecting on shared positive moments, key accomplishments, and what everyone valued most about the person leaving — and giving them the opportunity to reflect back what they appreciated most about teammates, will leave everyone feeling positive, motivated, and more connected. This can be done in a conversation, or written in notes.
Particularly when layoffs are concerned, collectively sharing and reflecting on what the team has achieved together, and what each individual contributed, will also help prepare everyone for the job market. Prior to a massive organizational layoff (where it wasn’t clear if my team would be affected), I brought my team through a pre-layoff process that included reflecting on achievements and strengths. We created a google doc with this table and spent time filling it in together for each person and then discussed it:
We also co-reviewed our current resume materials, wrote one another references and I ensured each of my direct reports had a reference letter they had drafted on file so I could quickly respond to future requests.
In total, this took about eight hours of work time over three weeks — but my team was able to better focus and remain motivated in the other hours, making it an efficient use of time and led us to be one of the most effective and productive teams through a difficult time of transition.
3. Express Gratitude and Appreciation
A recent study found that 79% of people who quit their job cited ‘lack of appreciation’ as the key reason. Finding ways to express gratitude and appreciation leads to more trust, higher productivity, and more resilient teams. Grateful bosses are more likely successful, and teams that practice gratitude have higher work engagement, job satisfaction, trust and perform better.
Gratitude has benefits for both the giver and the receiver. We feel closer to one another when what we do is appreciated, *and* when we notice and express gratitude for what others do for us. As a leader, I made it a practice to thank people for good work, extra effort, or just showing up when things were hard.
- Thank each other: As a team, one ritual was taking time at the beginning of our bi-weekly meetings to thank or acknowledge one another within the team (once we had developed team values, we also called out people for living our team values particularly well).
- Thank others: We created a “Star” award to give out bi-weekly to teammates on *other* teams who had collaborated with us particularly well, or simply gone above and beyond in their work. One person would nominate and share the story about why they were grateful, and someone *else* on our team would then express that story and present the award to the recipient. Being recognized, and also hearing that others are speaking well of you, boosted the benefit to recipients. This practice both focused us on collaborations and people that were going well; and also built inter-team trust.
In addition to connection, motivation requires our core needs for competence, autonomy, and meaning are filled.
Competence is feeling you have the skills needed to achieve your goals and can read the environment correctly to apply them.
Autonomy is the sense that you are able to freely make choices about your actions.
Meaning has to do with the “whys” of life — Why am I here? Why does what I do matter? Our sense of self is partly created through the stories we tell about our lives and our experiences, and meaning is how we create coherence through this narrative.
Meeting these needs and motivating your team requires clarity about what you’re trying to do as a team, and what each person’s specific goals and responsibilities are to help achieve the team mission. It’s not surprising then, that the Google Project Aristotle study also found that “structure and clarity” and “meaning” were within the top five commonalities among high performing teams.
Clarity in roles and structures allow for resilience because it facilitates communication, increases intrinsic motivation and engagement, and allows the whole team to adapt their efforts to changing environments.
Prioritizing clarity means more than just setting achievement or production goals, it means asking: Why are we here and what do we want to accomplish together in the organization and in the world?
How do you prioritize clarity?
1. Emphasize purpose and values
Clarity requires not just goals, but an understanding of the “whys” of the work. Purpose is why we’re here as a team and organization; values are about how we want to work together to achieve our mission and vision. Being clear on both helps people be more autonomous, feel more competent, and find more purpose in their work.
- Establish shared values
For team values, it helps to first reflect on core individual values. For my most recent team, I created a card deck of common values, and printed a copy for each person. Then, in a retreat, team members sorted their deck to their personal top 5 values, then discussed both their process and their final choices with a partner, then we discussed as a team. It was interesting to note differences in process, as well as in the “why” behind selection. This helped to foster connection and feeling seen by one another, and helped us consider how each of us might approach developing team values differently.
Afterwards, we reflected on our team mission and goals, and discussed which of these values were core to our work as a team. From this initial list, we began an ongoing process over the next few months that drew on Brene Brown’s work on operationalizing values: defining shared values and how to put them in action. She also has a great list of values for teams.
- Create a team mission statement
What is the key role of your team within the larger organization? Your organization likely has a mission and vision statement, but what is the role of your department or team within that? Creating consensus within your team (and higher up) about the team mission statement can help create an important level of clarity and connection to purpose within the team.
2. Set goals and consider challenges
- Set team and individual goals: There are many ways of organizing goals and considering challenges. We’ve used OKRs in our work, but there are many goal setting systems. The important thing is that you know not just where you’re going, but also how you’re planning to get there, and why that goal is important. Good research has been done on how to best do this for virtual teams as well: it turns out that the quality of goal setting processes and task interdependence were key for the most effective teams.
- Conduct a Pre-mortem for Challenges: Doing post-mortems and retrospectives after work has happened can be a key way to learn from what went well and wrong. But what if we can learn to address challenges before they even happen? One of my favorite exercises with my team was conducting a PRE-mortem: imagining all the things that could go terribly wrong and cause the project to fail, then proactively trying to address the potential causes.
3. Establish meeting rhythms
My team used to get off-track in our weekly meetings because someone would ask either a big strategic question, or something so in-the-weeds it wasn’t important to anyone else. We also would often get pulled into an urgent request by the CEO, which would leave some of our longer, important but not immediately needed work at risk of not moving forward.
Establishing consistent meeting rhythms with specific purposes creates both clarity and efficiency — everyone knows when to ask particular kinds of questions, and there is time carved out to consider both the urgent and the important. It supports team resilience, because the content of the meetings can change quickly — there are clear ways to communicate new information and reorganize priorities as needed.
Our team rhythms looked like this:
Your team rhythms should be aligned to the timelines and purposes that meet the needs of your team. The design criteria should be that both the urgent and the important, the strategic and the tactical, can be regularly attended to.
Notice that with each of these, if you’re a leader focused on a narrow idea of efficiency then building in time for connection, appreciation, or non-goal-specific rituals may seem unnecessary or even wasteful.
However, teams that have high levels of connection and clarity will find they have higher retention, engagement, flexibility, and morale, making them more resilient and effective over the long run.