How To Build Resilient Teams

How To Build Resilient Teams

Teams today are asked to do more and more with less and less. The demands on their time have only increased. And so has their uncertainty. That leads to a lot of stress, potential setbacks, and failures. Overcoming these obstacles requires building a resilient team.

And that starts with understanding what a makes a resilient team. Resilience isn’t toughness. Resilience isn’t about continuing to take punches. It’s not about bouncing back. It’s about the ability to bounce forward. Resilience is the ability to assess, adapt, recover, and grow from challenges.

In this article, we’ll outline the four building blocks of resilient teams.


The first building block of a resilient team is awareness. The team needs to be aware of the situations, tasks, and environments that can trigger stress. Stress is often defined as a nonspecific (common) response to demands. So having too much to do and not enough time to do it can be an obvious trigger. But beyond capacity, being assigned tasks that are too vague or being asked to work in environments that are toxic or negative can also trigger stress responses, even if the demands on the individual and team’s time are minimal. Given all these potential triggers, it’s worth bringing the team to a sense of awareness about what specific situations trigger stress for them, so that those situations can be avoided, but also so teammates know when and how to support each other in those situations.


The second building block of a resilient team is framing. How teams frame the events and situations around them affects how stressed they feel. In particular, when teams feel that demands and situations are outside of their control, they’re more likely to feel stressed. However, adopting an internal or external locus of control is a choice. Individuals and teams may not be in control of what happens to them, but they can still control their response. And in focusing on that response, they reframe the situation. In addition, teams can reframe many stressors as growth opportunities. Whether successes of failures, new demands on a team create learning opportunities. Teams either learn in the moment and meet the demand, or fail and then look to team leaders to guide them through an after-action review to distill lessons for next time. In any case, how a team frames what it’s doing and what happens to it will have a significant effect on how resilient they become.


The third building block of a resilient team is exposure. Growing resilience is like growing a muscle. You cannot remove stressors from an individual or team and expect that to make them stronger. The opposite is true. Teams need to experience stress. Teams need to be tasked with new and bigger challenges in order to grow. The trick is to lead the team into the right balance of stressful demands and their capacity to achieve them. Psychologists often call this “eustress,” the perfect match between demands and ability. As a leader, this usually means monitoring the capacity of the team and how new demands reduce that capacity—with the goal being to hit the sweet spot between what the team can handle and what they’re being asked to do. Too much will trigger distress, too little will trigger boredom and resilience will dissipate. One simple way to monitor capacity is to make priorities clear. Even when new tasks are added, make it clear where those tasks fit into the existing list of priorities so teammates know where to focus and what to ignore. They’ll spend their capacity on the most important tasks and, if some get missed, they’ll be the least damaging to performance.


The fourth building block of a resilient team is recovery. Just like weight training to grow a muscle, resilience isn’t just grown by exposure to increasing demands—it also requires recovery time for growth to occur. Recovery happens in two ways. The first is in the moment, teaching them strategies like mindfulness, meditation, or other ways to deal with stressful situations as they occur. The second is over the long-term, making sure individuals and teams have planned downtime after periods of high work demand. Recovery time needs to be experienced on a team and an individual level. So, team leaders need to manage capacity to provide days and weeks where the workload is limited, but also ensure that individuals are using the time off available to them to recover and grow on their own. This may even mean making sure leaders are modeling the way and demonstrating their own need for mindfulness and use of vacation time. One of the biggest barriers to recovery in modern work is people feeling like they “don’t have time” for time off. But without making time for it, performance and resilience both suffer.

While it may at first seem like a linear process, growing a team’s resilience through these four building blocks is actually more simultaneous. Resilient leaders monitor how a team is doing on all four dimensions at once and make adjustments accordingly. But those little adjustments compound and grow, and the team’s resilience grows alongside it—which sets the team up to do its best work ever.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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